President dissolves House and calls polls for April 30 and May 10

Radio Darpan

Kathmandu, December 21

“Democratic backsliding today begins at the ballot box,” write Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt in their book “How Democracies Die”, explaining how democracies face threats in today’s world.

Nepal must have been the last place the professors at Harvard University had thought about.

On Sunday, Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli crushed the Parliament that was elected from the ballot box, in a move that leaders, civil society members and constitutional experts have described as a constitutional coup.

Amid deepening crisis in his Nepal Communist Party (NCP), Oli was losing his ground—his opponents in the ruling party were bent on forcing him to step down; they were planning to take a decision against him through party committees; and as many as 90 lawmakers had even filed a no-confidence motion.

Lately, the main opposition had upped its ante against Oli, especially after he bulldozed an ordinance related to the Constitutional Council Act.

A vindictive Oli, after finding himself cornered, decided to dissolve the same House of Representatives that elected him to lead the government for the full five-year term.

The Standing Committee of his own party condemned the move as unconstitutional and undemocratic.

Political analysts and experts on constitutional affairs say Oli totally misunderstood the electoral mandate he and his party had received to govern and ultimately attacked the same constitution which he was mandated to protect and strengthen.

After the Oli Cabinet recommended House dissolution on Sunday morning, the Office of the President in the afternoon endorsed it.

The Office of the President said in a notice that President Bidya Devi Bhandari approved the recommendation, pursuant to Article 76 (1) and (7) and Article 85 of the constitution, of the Council of Ministers to dissolve the House of Representatives. The President also approved the Cabinet’s recommendation for holding general elections on April 30 and May 10 next year.

“President Bhandari has completely failed to play her role of the guardian of the constitution,” senior advocate Chandra Kant Gyawali, who specialises on constitutional law, told the Post.

Gyawali said the provisions she has cited are attracted only when there is a hung parliament and no party can prove its majority.

Bhimarjun Acharya, who holds PhD on constitutional law, described the Oli government’s move and subsequent approval by the President as “constitutional coup”.

“Both the government and the President have cited Article 76 wrongly, as it is related to the government formation and that has nothing to do with the incumbent government,” said Acharya. “And article 85 is linked with Article 76.”

Both Gyawali and Acharya said now the only hope is the Supreme Court.

“But I am not sure how independently and competently the judiciary deals with the issue,” Acharya told the Post.

In a bid to ensure stability given frequent government changes and the past experience of attempts to dissolve the House by prime ministers at the drop of a hat, the drafters of the constitution, which cost seven years and billions of rupees, had envisioned that a prime minister commanding a majority cannot dissolve the House.

But Oli has shown utter disregard for the constitution and its provisions.

Analysts say Oli has not only trampled upon fundamental values of the constitution and democracy but also plunged the country into yet another vicious cycle of uncertainty and instability.

“Oli has pushed the country into the same quagmire from which it was trying to get out,” said Lok Raj Baral, a professor of political science at Tribhuvan University and former ambassador to India. “I have been saying all along that a two-thirds majority is just a technical thing and it alone cannot ensure stability unless our politicians rise above their partisan interest, improve their culture and shed their feudal mindset.”

According to Baral, by dissolving the House, Oli has not only made a technical move but also betrayed the people of the country.

“What could be a bigger betrayal to the people and the country than this?” said Baral.

Conjectures are now coming thick and fast as to how the situation will unfold in the coming days. Until afternoon, many had believed that President Bhandari may, for once, rise to the occasion and won’t play a complicit role in Oli’s mischief, like she has done in the past.

Bipin Adhikari, former dean of School of Law at Kathmandu University, said that both President and prime minister trampled upon the constitution despite protecting it being their prime responsibility.

“Oli took unconstitutional steps despite knowledge that the constitution doesn’t give him that authority,” Adhikari told the Post. “His actions have disrespected the constitution and President Bhandari has validated those moves.”

According to Adhikari, the only way the House can be reinstated is if the Supreme Court says so.

“With the dissolution of the lower house, the KP Sharma Oli government has turned into a caretaker government,” said Adhikari. “Oli will lose his position the day the top court decides to revoke his decision to dissolve the House. The reinstatement of the House of Representatives will automatically mean Oli’s defenestration.”

To many, Oli’s Sunday move may appear to have come all of a sudden. But those who have closely followed his way of functioning and the way he has on multiple occasions displayed his authoritarian streaks say it was not a matter of if but when.

But the dramatic decision to dissolve the House on Sunday largely stems from the ongoing feud in the ruling party.

Relations between Oli and the other chair Pushpa Kamal Dahal had soured so badly that there was little likelihood of them coming together again. In November, both Oli and Dahal not only engaged in shouting matches but also threw nasty personal remarks at each other. Dahal had become Oli’s nemesis, but he was equally infuriated at the way his colleagues from the CPN-UML days were backing the former Maoist leader.

Despite the Dahal faction’s warnings to either fall in line or face the music, Oli went ahead with his own decisions, disregarding party principles and procedures.

On Tuesday, Oli introduced an ordinance on the Constitutional Council Act so as to make it easier for him to appoint officials to constitutional bodies, including the Commission for Investigation of Abuse of Authority. But after massive criticism from within his party and outside, he agreed at the party’s Wednesday Standing Committee meeting to revoke it. But instead he called a meeting of the Council, only to cancel it later.

It was revealed on Sunday that the Council had already made recommendations of some officials including former Home Secretary Prem Rai, as chief of the anti-graft commission.

On Sunday morning, as many 90 lawmakers of the ruling Nepal Communist Party filed no confidence motion against the prime minister.

But by dissolving the House, Oli has not only got the decks cleared for the appointment of his loyalists but also stopped his opponents from having a floor to oust him.

Back in March, 2019, the Constitutional Council appointed Dinesh Thapaliya as the chief election commissioner.

On Sunday evening, Oli held a meeting with Election Commission officials and asked them to focus on the elections.

Narendra Dahal, an election commissioner, said Oli held a meeting with election officials and asked them to start preparations for the elections.

“He said the government will provide needed resources and make security arrangements for the polls,” Dahal told the Post. “We have suggested that the government hold the polls in a single phase to save money.”

Analysts had told the Post earlier this month that the Oli administration has been attacking the system, one step a time, posing a grave danger to democratic values and principles.

Shyam Shrestha, a political commentator who has followed Nepal’s leftist politics for decades, said Sunday’s incident is yet another proof that what matters more than electoral mandate is politicians’ moral value and vision.

“The country is now headed back to the darkness,” he said. “Oli has forced the country on the path towards instability and uncertainty once again.”

Later on Sunday, three writ petitions were filed at the Supreme Court but they are yet to be duly registered, according to Kishor Poudel, media expert for the Supreme Court.

As the Supreme Court is the ultimate arbiter of the constitution, all eyes are on it now.

“If the Supreme Court makes its move judiciously and takes a prudent decision, then we can hope things to be back on track,” said Adhikari. “Or else, the Oli government’s present moves have thrown the country into the abyss of political instability.”

But amid this, Oli is also looking at imposing a state of emergency.

On Sunday evening, just as his party was holding its Standing Committee meeting, Oli had invited chiefs of all security agencies.

“Oli has no doubt pushed the country into confusion and chaos,” said Geja Sharma Wagle, a political commentator who writes on contemporary politics and security matters for the Post’s sister paper Kantipur. “How feasible is it to hold elections amid this ongoing pandemic? Then Oli seems to be planning to declare an emergency.”

According to Wagle, Sunday’s decision by Oli could put his head in a noose but the consequences could be graver.

“He seems to have no intentions to hold the elections. House dissolution has invited not only a political but also constitutional crisis,” said Wagle.

Oli has given ample ground to anti-democratic forces who are against the republican set-up, federalism and secularism to hit the streets, according to Wagle.

“The way the events have unfolded over the past few weeks shows,” said Wagle, “Prime Minister Oli and President Bhandari have made a well-calculated move to rule the country in an authoritative manner.”