Written by: Felix Hutton
Stemming from its 10-year civil war beginning in 1996, Nepal has seen large changes to its political parties and their respective leaders with some major politically and legally significant events occurring, including the creation of a new constitution. The success of the new constitution, which declared Nepal a secular, federal-style republic and aimed to improve its inclusivity, is difficult to determine. What is clearer, however, is the fact that political uncertainty has continued under the new constitution. At the end of 2020, after the Nepal Communist Party, the leading party at the time this article was written, suffered from in-fighting and an increasing number of its members began to oppose its leader Prime Minister (PM) Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli, the PM called for the dissolution of Parliament. This prompted large protests by members of the party and the public and, after being reviewed by Nepal’s Supreme Court, the dissolution was held to be unconstitutional and was consequently reversed. This article shall briefly examine Nepal’s civil war and its political implications, discuss the creation of the new constitution, look at previous calls for the dissolution of Nepal’s Parliament, and finally explore the creation of the Nepal Communist Party and the rising conflicts within it which culminated in PM Oli calling for Parliament’s dissolution.
Nepal’s Civil War
From roughly 1996 to 2006, Nepal endured a deadly civil war between Maoist rebels and the government, causing the death of thousandsIt materialised from a national movement launched by the Maoists, with the aim of creating a new democratic order in Nepal, named by them as a ‘people’s government’. The Maoists are influenced by the beliefs of Mao Zedong, a Marxist theorist and former Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party in the People’s Republic of China. Babu Ram Bhattarai, one of the top spokespersons for the Maoists, said that the rebellion stems from the desire ‘to overthrow the present state and establish a new democratic republic… [with] no place for feudal, comprador, bureaucratic and capitalist forces’. They also sought the abolition of the monarchy.
After 10 years of fighting, in 2006, the government came to sign a peace deal with the Maoists, called the Comprehensive Peace Agreement. The agreement consisted of a ceasefire and put the arms and armies belonging to the State and the Maoist group respectively under the management of the United Nations. To drive social, political, and economic change, it also established a National Human Rights Commission, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission and a National Peace and Rehabilitation Commission. Moreover, it called for the nationalisation of property belonging to the monarchy and its provisions called for a vote to be held in the first constitutional assembly on whether Nepal should remain as a monarchy. Maoist leaders subsequently entered Parliament under a temporary constitution in January 2007, before then joining an interim government. Following a bomb attack in Kathmandu in September, however, the Maoists quit the interim government and continued to demand the monarchy’s abolition. By December, Parliament was engaging in peace talks once again and upon approving the request of the Maoists, they re-entered government. By the time the Constituent Assembly declared Nepal a Federal Democratic Republic, thus ending the 240 year-old monarchy, it was 2008. In July of that year, Ram Baran Yadav of the Nepali Congress (a social-democratic political party) was elected as Nepal’s first President. Maoist leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal then won the Prime Minister election by a wide margin and formed a coalition government. Less than a year later, however, following a row with the President over integrating former rebel fighters into the military, Dahal resigned. What followed was a political deadlock and a constant turnover of Prime Ministers. Then, in March 2013, President Yadav appointed the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Khil Raj Regmi, as Prime Minister until the upcoming elections. These took place in November 2013 and a coalition was formed by February 2014 between the Nepali Congress and the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist), with Sushil Koirala of the Nepali Congress becoming Prime Minister. This government saw the deadliest Mount Everest avalanche in history, a landslide which killed 156 people, floods killing 102 more, a snowstorm in the Annapurna region which killed dozens, and, in April 2015, an earthquake with a magnitude of 7.8 which killed about 9000 and left tens of thousands injured and produced an aftershock the following month which killed over 100 more. This left Nepal facing a humanitarian crisis which ‘helped spur negotiations on the new constitution’.
The ‘Landmark Constitution’
Despite calls to delay its passing after 40 people were killed in protests, Parliament passed the Constitution of Nepal in mid-September 2015. It declared Nepal as a secular, federal-style republic.
Asides from changing the nature of the State, it also created an extensive list of fundamental rights that can be used to bring potential breaches to court and established various constitutional commissions such as the Women Commission and commissions concerning traditionally marginalised communities.
The new constitution additionally aims to achieve inclusivity. One method of doing so is by having 40 percent of the House of Representatives elected through proportional representation. This means that members of sparsely populated communities in mountainous areas have a greater chance of being elected. However, in comparison with the previous interim constitution that required 58 percent of Parliament to be elected in the same way, this decreased requirement weakens the new constitution’s efforts on inclusivity. That said, provisions in the Constitution were amended last minute to allow women to pass citizenship to their children in the same way men can, therefore, the success of the new constitution is difficult to determine. One notable improvement is that the new constitution explicitly recognises sexual minority groups and, for example, guarantees that they have the right to employment in State structures. On the other hand, some provisions concerning freedom of expression appear vague, making it impossible to know how much protection they will award.
This constitution has faced strong criticism from some, such as Shivaji Yadav of the Federal Socialist Forum who alleged that ‘the big parties have tried to crush the minority groups’ and that the constitution has been rushed through, something Bhoj Raj Pokhrel, a former national election commissioner, agrees with.
Nepal’s History of Calls for Dissolution
Before discussing the recent dissolution of Parliament, it should be recognised that this is not the first time Nepal’s Parliament has been dissolved. In 1994, Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala, leader of the Nepali Congress, called for a dissolution of Parliament due to infighting in his party. The decision was reviewed by the courts who ruled in favour of the dissolution. Subsequent elections were won by the Communist Party of Nepal, led by Man Mohan Adhikari. Within his first year, however, he attempted to dissolve Parliament after there were calls for a vote of no-confidence. Once again, the decision went to the courts who, this time, ruled that the move was unconstitutional. This ruling was followed by a no-confidence motion which Adhikari lost, leading to his resignation. Additionally, in 2002, Sher Bahadur Deuba, leading the Nepali Congress, dissolved the House of Representatives, one of Nepal’s Houses of Parliament, to call for fresh elections, although they did not happen due to the civil war. Instead, the interim government, led by Deuba, extended Nepal’s state of emergency due to the continuing violence arising from the conflicts between the Maoist rebels and the government. It appears that calls for dissolution are, therefore, not novel. Further, it seems that the courts do not allow Prime Ministers to dissolve Parliament for arguably tactical reasons, for example to avoid having to face a vote of no-confidence. These attempts were made before the new constitution came into force, however, and consequently the new attempt is certainly occurring in a new environment.
The Nepal Communist Party and Prime Minister Oli’s Call for Dissolution
In December 2020, PM Oli of the Nepal Communist Party called for the dissolution of Parliament due to infighting in his party. The Nepal Communist Party was created in May 2018 when the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist) and the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre) united after Oli was sworn in as Prime Minister in February of that year. PM Oli and Dahal, leader of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre), agreed to jointly lead the new party as co-chairpersons until its first general convention, which has yet to take place.
The Nepal Communist Party has experienced various disputes between its members since its inception. In August 2019, Madhav Kumar Nepal, one of the party’s senior leaders, was demoted following a central secretariat meeting. In response, Nepal submitted a dissent note, criticising the Head of the Government, though not explicitly mentioning PM Oli. Nepal also repeated, in the note, his belief that the party should have adopted a ‘one person, one post’ principle, essentially calling on Oli to step down either as Prime Minister or as Co-chair.
Over the last couple of years, there has also been disagreement between the two co-chairs of the party, PM Oli and Dahal. While it was originally planned that, halfway through the premiership, Dahal would replace Oli as PM, Oli diverted from this agreement on the ground that it was he to whom the people gave a mandate to lead the government, not others. Through what seemed like some form of compromise, they then decided that Oli would remain in his capacity as PM for the full five-year term while Dahal would chair most party meetings, allowing him to lead the party to an extent. The legality of this decision to allow Oli to enjoy premiership for the full term was, however, questioned by Senior Advocate Surya Dhungel, since the term of the Prime Minister was meant to be decided by the House of Representatives, although whether the decision was ever formally challenged is unclear.
Despite this, in-fighting continued. In November 2020, The Kathmandu Post reported that Dahal accused PM Oli in a 19-page proposal for “failing in his responsibilities”. Dahal claimed this failure stemmed from the PM’s failure to follow the manifesto and his turning a blind eye to corruption charges made against Gokul Prasad Baskota, the former Information Minister, over a government contract concerning security printing of passports. It appears that some, including Dahal, used this proposal as grounds to call for PM Oli’s resignation.
In response, PM Oli presented a 38-page long proposal, reportedly rejecting Dahal’s accusations and accusing Dahal of non-cooperation and attempting to direct the government away from his control. PM Oli further claimed that Dahal’s proposal held no legal or political status, since party co-chairs and the general secretary had to first be consulted before presenting a proposal, and neither of them, it is reported, were consulted.
Moreover, during the pandemic, there have been reports claiming that frontline workers have not received appropriate personal protective equipment due to mismanagement from the government. Issues like these, in addition to the administrative problems, appear to have contributed to the increasing lack of confidence in PM Oli within the Nepal Communist Party. This lack of confidence culminated towards the end of 2020, where PM Oli fell into the minority, with some reports even suggesting that Dahal and his supporters were beginning to prepare a motion of no-confidence.
Following this, PM Oli recommended a dissolution of the House of Representatives, a suggestion which the President followed. He said internal fights and a lack of cooperation from his party was preventing any decision-making and therefore a new popular mandate was needed. This drastic measure was heavily criticised by politicians. By December 20th, seven Cabinet ministers had resigned, saying in a joint statement: “We hereby resign from our posts to express our disagreement to the Prime Minister’s unconstitutional and undemocratic move which is against the people’s mandate and political principles and stability.” Two days later, members supporting Dahal and Nepal decided, in a meeting, to expel Oli from the post of party Chairman.
PM Oli’s move also sparked protests with thousands rallying outside his office in Kathmandu, despite COVID-19 restrictions on gatherings. His decision was not final, however, as its legality was questioned before the Supreme Court, who heard dozens petitioning against his decision. This included 13 writ petitions including one by the ruling party’s Chief Whip Dev Prasad Gurung. On February 22nd, the Supreme Court held that PM Oli’s move was unconstitutional, and that Parliament must be reinstated. This appears to follow the Court’s historical approach of ruling against dissolutions of Parliament where it is done to stop the PM from facing a vote of no-confidence. It further held that a meeting of the reinstated Parliament must be called within 13 days. This decision was welcomed by the opposition and many members within PM Oli’s party. It is reported that Narayan Kaji Shrestha, a spokesman for the faction within PM Oli’s party who have long criticised him, said the ruling ‘protected the spirit of democracy’. He further said that PM Oli should resign on moral grounds and, if he fails to do so, they ‘will take the necessary decision from the Parliament’, suggesting that a no-confidence motion will be put forward.
It seems that either PM Oli’s resignation or a vote of no-confidence will likely follow the Supreme Court’s judgement. Although Nepal still faces political uncertainty, this ruling will perhaps give the people some confidence in the working of the country’s legal system and constitution.
Since this article was written, there have been some political developments in Nepal. In May, PM Oli lost a vote of no-confidence, changing his position to that of a ‘caretaker’ (or interim) prime minister. Following the vote, he dissolved Parliament a second time, but the Supreme Court once again ordered Parliament to be reconvened. They also decided that Sher Bahadur Deuba, the leader of the main opposition party at the time, was to be appointed as the new Prime Minister. Deuba subsequently won a vote of confidence in Parliament. The government’s first priority, he declared, shall be combatting COVID-19.
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