The month of March turned out to be just another month with the never-ending political crisis. The winter session of the parliament was prorogued amidst the longest-ever obstruction in Nepal’s parliamentary history. This, in turn, prolonged the judicial deadlock that the Supreme Court has been facing for over the last six months. While intra party feuds came to the fore, interparty rivalries intensified; and with the new cycle of elections approaching nearby, political leaders seemed eager in sharpening their demagogic rhetorics. The only reassuring aspect of the month remained that the political parties were in a preparatory mood for the upcoming local election.
Timeline of Major Events
|March 1||UML held a press conference to back MCC. Although MCC was ratified by the parliament on 27 Feb, UML had chosen not to participate in the parliamentary process.|
|March 4||The constitutional bench of the supreme court convened after six months under the acting Chief Justice Deepak Kumar Karki.|
|March 15||The Deuba government decided to prorogue the winter season of the federal parliament.|
|March 17||The Election Commission (EC) issued the election code of conduct.|
|March 22||The Supreme Court repealed the EC’s code of conduct requiring local representatives to resign from the post to be candidates again.|
|March 25 – March 27||Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited Nepal and signed a nine-point agreement with PM Deuba.|
|March 29||Congress decided to leave the electoral alliance at the local discretion.|
Legislative and Judiciary In a crisis
On March 15th, the Deuba government prorogued the winter session of the federal parliament. The main opposition UML had been obstructing the House for over six months; and the only successful parliamentary proceedings were the passing of the national budget with four budget-related bills and ratification of the MCC pact. UML’s major demand to let the House function – that fourteen lawmakers who split UML to form the new party CPN (Unified Socialist) be expelled – is under the Supreme Court’s review.
Now that the case is for the Supreme Court to decide, the only responsible move on the part of the opposition would be to let the House function. However, UML’s Chairman KP Sharma Oli has been hell-bent on justifying his unconstitutional moves of dissolving the Lower House twice. UML has held the House hostage for the longest-ever period just to prove Oli’s point that the House had already run its due course by the time of dissolution.
On the other hand, it was irresponsible for the Deuba government to abruptly prorogue the winter session just a day before the House was supposed to hold deliberations over the impeachment motion against Chief Justice Cholendra Shumsher Rana. Chief Justice Rana has been in suspension after lawmakers of the ruling coalition filed an impeachment motion on February 13 charging him with 21 different allegations. All other Supreme Court justices have been protesting against Rana for the last six months, and the dissident justices had refused to share the bench with Rana. It was only after six months, once Rana got suspended, the constitutional bench of the Supreme Court convened.
Despite the opposition’s obstruction, the Deuba government had managed to pass a few bills and the MCC compact through the parliament. Even in this case, the government could have followed the same path, and let the House decide over the impeachment motion. That way, the executive and the legislative in tandem could have provided the judiciary with much-needed relief. However, with the winter session of the House prorogued, the judicial crisis is now bound to prolong at least until the next session.
Upcoming Local Election
The local election is announced for May 13, and the prospects for election coalitions made headlines throughout the month. CPN Maoist Centre and CPN Unified Socialist pressed the Nepali Congress to contest the upcoming election jointly. The prospects of coalition with communist parties exposed pre-existing fissures within the Nepali Congress. While the Deuba faction was for contesting the local polls together with other parties of the ruling alliance, Shekhar Koirala’s faction was against any electoral coalition. Finally, Nepali Congress decided to leave election coalitions at the local discretion – local units of the party can now form electoral alliances based on “situation and necessity”.
On the other side, there also remains a possibility of opposition parties contesting elections together. While two main opposition parties, CPN UML and Loktrantik Samajbadi Party (LSP) had previously formed a coalition in the Madhesh Pradesh for the National Assembly election held on January 26, it is reported that LSP now is joining the electoral alliance of the ruling parties instead. However, CPN UML is likely to form an electoral alliance with other opposition parties like the Rastriya Prajatantra Party (RPP).
Coalition governments have been around in Nepali politics for the last three decades but lately, political parties have also shown proclivities in forging election coalitions. While CPN Maoist Centre and CPN Unified Socialist were initially against the MCC pact, it was to save the ruling alliance and then contest the upcoming elections together, they voted for MCC’s parliamentary ratification. In endorsing the MCC compact, Maoist Centre’s top leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal had even risked the party’s split – and this, he argued, was to save the ruling alliance. Maoist Centre’s electoral base has been gradually shrinking over the years, and the newly formed CPN Unified Socialist doesn’t have a strong foothold either. Therefore, these parties have electoral incentives in contesting elections together with the Nepali Congress.
It is, however, yet to be seen if alliances between parties with conflicting ideologies and contrasting voter bases get translated into electoral success. Even the last time around, Nepali Congress and CPN Maoist Center had forged an election coalition for the 2017 local election but the coalition couldn’t perform as per their expectations. This was one among many other reasons that led CPN (Maoist Centre) to form an alliance with the next communist party – Oli’s UML – for the 2017 parliamentary election. On the other side, alliances between parties are also influenced by geopolitics at play; and even if the election coalition gets translated into electoral success, chances are that such a coalition can’t remain intact after the elections. Beijing’s interest in forging a coalition of communist parties could later weaken the alliance between Nepali Congress and the communist parties.
Amidst all these coalition talks, political parties geared up their election preparations. On March 13, Nepali Congress began a month-long door to door campaign, and other parties too launched their respective election campaigns. With the local election approaching nearby, leaders seemed increasingly reliant on demagogic rhetoric, perhaps to influence electoral outcomes in one’s favor. The demagogic politics could catalyze electoral success but such electoral success comes necessarily at the cost of a vibrant democracy. This heralds further difficulties in our transition to democratic maturity.
Election Commission Dragged into a Controversy
The Election Commission was dragged into controversy for its plan to print poll symbols in green, and also for two other newly introduced provisions – i) requiring local representatives to resign if they seek reelection, and ii) a period of two days, instead of one, for filing election nominations. The opposition UML claimed that the changes were introduced at the behest of the Nepali Congress. The poll symbols are printed in green which matches the colour of Nepali Congress’s election symbol – a green tree. For this reason, UML accused the Election Commission of acting under Nepali Congress’s influence. UML also claimed that the other two changes were also introduced to facilitate the NC-led ruling alliance in the upcoming local election. The Supreme Court, on March 22, ruled against the EC, and asked not to implement the provision requiring local officials seeking reelection to resign before the polls.
In its defense, the Election Commission has provided justifications for all three changes, and it is hard to know for sure if the commission introduced those provisions acting under the government’s influence. However as an autonomous constitutional body, the Election Commission could have acted in prudence to avoid controversies over its impartiality – the failure to do so raises some questions over its credibility. Governments pulling the strings of constitutional bodies, and in doing so, rendering them quasi-autonomous isn’t anything new which further adds to doubts over the EC’s impartiality.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s Visit to Nepal
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited Nepal from March 25 to 27 which marked the first high-profile visit from our northern neighbor since President Xi’s visit in October 2019. Wang met senior Nepali leaders and signed a nine points agreement with PM Deuba. Contrary to expectations, no agreement was reached on the BRI (Belt and Road Initiative) projects.
Wang’s visit to Nepal immediately after the ratification of the MCC pact signaled that Beijing is making attempts to court Kathmandu again. On MCC’s parliamentary ratification, China had accused the US of practicing “coercive diplomacy” with a claim that the grant was a “pandora box.” Ironically, these statements are reflective of Beijing’s interference over Kathmandu’s internal matters. China fears that its influence over Nepal is gradually diminishing after the split of the Nepal Communist Party (NCP) in 2021– and the parliamentary ratification of the US’s grant has only added to this fear. Chinese influence had reached its heyday when the NCP was in power – the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) had even trained the NCP’s leaders on “Xi’s thought”; and Chinese Ambassador Hou Yanqi had made attempts to avert the split of the NCP but to no avail.
Wang during his visit claimed that China’s “friendly policy is open to all parties and party factions”. But his comment – China would make “concerted efforts to jointly explore a governance model” conducive to “political stability” and “economic growth” – indicates that the CCP still wants its ideological counterpart in Baluwatar, be that a nominal communist party. And this isn’t the first time that China has asked Nepal to jointly “explore a suitable governance model”. Therefore, the visit is important when seen from the vantage point of Nepal’s domestic politics. The possibility of a communist coalition has been making a little buzz around, and Maoist Centre’s leaders’ trip to Beijing, at the same time as Foreign Minister Wang’s visit, added to this rumor. However, given that the merger between the two main communist parties to form the NCP didn’t work well the last time, it seems unlikely that a communist coalition – either electoral or cabinet – could materialize again anytime soon. Regardless of the communist coalition, Beijing now seems eager to rekindle efforts in reinstating its influence over Kathmandu – and if that happens, it will be yet another challenge for Nepal to overcome.