July Analysis: Domestic Politics

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The month of July saw a historic impression to the constitution and democratic system of Nepal. With the Supreme Court rendering K.P Sharma Oli’s house dissolution unconstitutional, and announcing Sher Bahadur Deuba to be the new Prime Minister, who also in turn won the vote of confidence, the trend of outsourcing political disputes to judiciary is slowly coming into play.

Table: Timeline of major political events in July

DateMajor Events
July 5CPN-UML revives the old task force to negotiate the factional differences
July 6Election Commission offers JSP the final reconciliatory opportunity, but the effort fails, and the factions decide to part ways
July 10The UML task force drafts a 10-point deal, but Madhav Nepal is not convinced by the proposal
July 12The Supreme Court reinstates the House and ordered to appoint Sher Bahadur Deuba as the prime minister
July 13NC’s Sher Bahadur Deuba takes oath of the PM
July 18Deuba wins the vote of confidence, securing 165 out of 249 lawmakers present; 22 UML lawmakers, including Madhav Nepal, voted in his favor violating the party’s whip
July 26The EC offers JSP’s legitimacy to the Yadav faction, who received 34 votes out of the party’s 51 CWC members; Mahant Thakur files a writ petition in the SC on July 30 against the EC’s decision
July 31Upendra Yadav elected JSP’s parliamentary party leader

Analysis

Although factionalism, party splits, and polarizations have been common events in Nepali politics over the decades, the month of July saw a series of events that will have far-reaching consequences—not only for the political parties and actors but for the country’s overall democratic system and constitutionalism. On July 12, the Supreme Court (SC) reinstated the House of Representatives (HoR), which had been dissolved by the then Prime Minister (PM) KP Oli—for the second time in a row. Quashing Oli’s authoritarian ambition, the court interpreted some unclear provisions of the constitutions, including the Article 76.5; the SC’s verdict explained that the article’s purpose was to ensure the longevity of the HoR and that under the Article 76.5, individual lawmakers were free to align and vote for anyone they pleased. Party’s whip would not work in this case.

Photo: RSS

Over the years, the trend of outsourcing political disputes and questions to the courts and other constitutional bodies has grown. Due to a polarization in personal interests of the leaders, factionalism and disputes seem to have plagued all the parties. When the parties and leaders fail to resolve their disputes by themselves, they seek the outside counsel. The Supreme Court’s involvement was also the result of similar dynamics. However, the court’s verdict was historic; not only did it restore the supremacy of the constitution by thwarting Oli’s anti-democratic moves but it also explained the constitutional provisions related to government formation, which will have a long-term impact in Nepali politics. Nevertheless, the by-product of Deuba’s appointment as the PM has been observed within all political parties. 

CPN-UML: the Opposition

Oli tried to influence the court’s decision and save his chair by doing all he could. On June 30, he had ‘revived’ the old Central Committee and scrapped the convention organizing committee. He wanted the 23 lawmakers to withdraw their signatures from the Supreme Court’s petition against him. Oli still had Mahant Thakur’s support, which made him believe that he could still muster a majority against the rival alliance if the Madhav Nepal faction complied. Oli also had the sympathy of the second-rank UML leaders who were more concerned about saving the party’s unity because a party split would jeopardize their future. However, Madhav Nepal maintained his rigidity and declined to withdraw the signatures, despite intense negotiations and a task force-drafted 10-point deal for agreement.

When all else failed, Oli retorted to his usual tactics of intimidation. The party’s standing committee (Oli group) meeting on July 16 decided not to offer vote of confidence to Deuba and ‘unilaterally’ endorsed the 10-point agreement, but that did not work either; 22 UML lawmakers voted in Deuba’s favor and 11 decided to stay absent—‘violating’ the party’s whip. A furious Oli responded with personal attacks against Madhav Nepal and others who had cost him his chair. However, in subsequent days, he toned down his aggression and instead expressed a desire to continue reconciliation efforts until the end. In the process, Oli even offered to make Madhav Nepal the party’s second chairperson, but Madhav Nepal was dismissive of Oli’s offer. While the former wanted to maintain his grip over the party, the latter was not willing to buzz with anything other than an equal and ‘dignified’ co-chairmanship of the party.

Oli’s initial remarks at Nepal’s firmness was full of contempt. He accused him of being arrogant and even called him a ‘traitor’ who had no place in the party. Many would see such remarks as a result of Oli’s growing helplessness and a diminishing grip over the party. Meanwhile, Madhav Nepal has indicated that he will not be joining the government and would rather continue his struggle in the party. His position seems to be guided by three factors: a) the pressure from second-rank leaders to save the party’s unity, b) an understanding that his clout in the party is gradually increasing with Oli’s downfall, and c) an attachment to the party’s flag and electoral symbol. Oli is not unaware of his shrinking influence in the party either, which is why a ‘compromise’ to allow Madhav Nepal an equal chairmanship appears more likely.

In the UML’s unfolding internal politics, the revival of ‘violent’ youth wings by both Oli and Nepal factions have been particularly interesting. When the Oli faction revived the party’s ‘Youth Force,’ the Nepal faction also decided to revive the People’s Volunteer (PV), which had been dissolved after the party’s eighth general convention. During the ‘power demonstration rallies,’ Mahesh Basnet, Oli’s close aide, did not shy away from making inflammatory threats and warnings. The nature and timing of such remarks indicate Oli’s defensive strategy to warn the coalition government not to take any action against his appointees, the accomplices in his unconstitutional moves, including the president, and his associates embroiled in corruption scandals. This paranoia begs an important question regarding the autonomy of the constitutional bodies including the Election Commission (EC) and the Commission for Investigation of Abuse of Authority (CIAA). Why do these autonomous bodies tend to be pro-state? Why and how do the EC and the CIAA, which apparently worked in Oli’s favor until a month ago, suddenly become pro-government (Deuba) again? Perhaps the answer lies in heavy politicization of the commissions and commissioners’ concern about saving their jobs.

Janata Samajwadi Party (JSP)

The Madhes-based party suffered a direct blow from the ‘Oli debacle.’ After the NCP’s split, when he lost the Maoist Centre’s support, Oli asked the JSP to join the government. Lured by Oli’s promise to address the Madhes issues, Mahant Thakur faction of the JPS joined the government, while the Yadav-Bhattarai faction continued the anti-Oli alliance. However, the Thakur faction’s support fell short when the Madhav Nepal group decided to favor Deuba. Now that Oli is gone and Deuba is the PM, the Thakur faction has not only lost the power and leverage to get the Madhes issues addressed but is also gradually losing supporters. Five lawmakers from the Thakur faction joined the Yadav faction, giving the latter a comfortable majority at both Central Working Committee (CWC) and parliamentary party. On July 26, the Election Commission (EC) decided that the Yadav faction, with a majority CWC members, had the legitimate claim over the party. Meanwhile, Thakur was given an option to register a new party. Whereas Thakur has challenged the EC’s decision at the Supreme Court, the party’s CWC meeting decided to strip the positions of all 16 members of the Thakur faction, limiting the party’s CWC to 34 members.

The JSP’s genesis was a result of Oli’s ambition, while its split was once again a direct by-product of Oli’s power games. Not that Thakur’s Rashtriya Janata Party (RJP) and Yadav’s Samajwadi Party were natural allies, but their merger had consolidated a number strong enough to influence decisions in the federal parliament. However, personal rivalries and misplaced priorities ended up splitting the party. What the episode also exposed is the leaders’ and lawmakers’ lack of commitment to their ideologies and hunger for power –factional switching with the hope of being ministers is just one evidence.

Nepali Congress and CPN-Maoist Centre

Neither the Nepali Congress nor the Maoist Centre is safe from the lawmakers’ unhealthy competition to become minister. While Madhav Nepal’s decision not to join the government does offer some clarity and gives more room to accommodate the three parties—Nepali Congress, Maoist Centre, and Janata Samajwadi Party—in the government, intra-party competition and rivalries continue to delay cabinet expansion.  

At an event, the Maoist Centre chief Pushpa Kamal Dahal shared that he was under a lot of stress because all 49 lawmakers from the party wanted to be ministers. Likewise, PM Deuba, who has the party’s general convention knocking its door, faces his own challenge to distribute the ministerial portfolios among different factions within his party. Given the imbalance of aspirants and available portfolios, the parties are likely to make settlements through political and diplomatic appointments—one major source of politicization of autonomous bodies.

Seizing the Moment

The ongoing intra-party wrangling, the pandemic mismanagement, and corruption scandals have all evidently frustrated the general public. Apart from the parties’ internal disputes for power and leadership, public discontent also lies in the evolving state-party relationship. Oli’s unilateral actions and complete control over both party and the government had blurred the boundaries between the two. Although Deuba may not share Oli’s authoritarian tendencies, his governance track record is no cleaner. Besides, his few moves in the first three weeks of his appointment indicate his failure to distance the government from crony capitalists and make the most of the opportunity Nepali politics brought him.

Trying to capture this political vacuum created by public frustration are conservative, anti-democratic forces. For instance, Bibeksheel Sajha Party’s chief Rabindra Mishra shared a proposal, calling for a referendum on secularism and scrapping federalism. The proposal stirred an intra-party scuffle, with the party’s coordinator Milan Pandey clarifying that Mishra’s proposal was his personal stand, not the party’s official statement. While Mishra’s proposal was only an opportunistic move in an effort to gain relevance in the mainstream politics, anti-democratic aspirations and voices should neither be overlooked nor underestimated. After all, Nepal’s federal democratic republic is a joint achievement of all the parties and people, which should be defended by all.

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