2017’s parliamentary election proved a resounding victory for the newly unified Nepal Communist Party and brought KP Sharma Oli at the centre of power. Following his firm stance during the Indian blockade of 2015, Oli was branded a nationalist leader and elected as prime minister. Voters widely endorsed his key election pledges of prosperity and stability. It appeared that Oli had an opportunity to lead one of the strongest governments in Nepal’s parliamentary history.
But this possibility soon got overshadowed as the ministers in Oli’s cabinet indulged in repeated acts of corruption. One of his trusted associates, Gokul Baskota, has been accused of demanding a Rs 700 million bribe over a security printing machine deal. Another lieutenant of his, Bhanu Bhakta Dhakal, who heads the health ministry, has been accused of corruption in a multi-million rupees medical supplies scandal. After delaying the Covid19 medical procurement process for months, Dhakal awarded the deal to Omni Group, a firm favoured by the government.
Throughout this, Oli defended all the accused while denying any corruption. Meanwhile, the public gave the Oli government the benefit of the doubt, hoping he would stick to election-time promises.
Last week, without consulting his cabinet members, PM Oli endorsed two controversial ordinances to amend the Constitutional Council (Functions, Duties, Powers and Procedures) Act and the Political Parties Act. They were aimed at splitting opposition parties as well as his own in case of an emergency and to appoint people he trusts into constitutional bodies. The most important of these bodies appears to be the Commission for the Investigation of Abuse of Authority (CIAA) which, when led by one of his loyalists, can invalidate corruption cases filed against his ministers and silence opposition.
Factions within the Samajbadi and Rastriya Janata parties had been eager to split but could not as they required a 40 percent majority within each party’s central committee and in the parliament. Oli saw that he could benefit from the splits, whereby defactors could bolster his political power. He hurriedly introduced the ordinances which were issued by president Bidya Devi Bhandari so swiftly that even NCP leaders were unsuccessful in blocking them.
When members of the Samajbadi and Rastriya Janata parties sensed Oli’s intentions, they merged to prevent the 40 percent support required for the split. Oli had mobilised a team of loyalists, including the likes of Mahesh Basnet, Kisan Shrestha and retired police chief Sarbendra Khanal, to abduct opposition MP Surendra Yadav from Mahottari to ensure the Samajbadi Party’s split. Yadav would have been a key player in the successful split of his party had he acquiesced to the pressures of Oli’s men. But upon being forced to travel with Khanal to Kathmandu, Yadav spoiled Oli’s well laid plan by remaining loyal to his party and supporting the merger instead.
The PM failed in his plan to split his opposition parties, which the amended Political Parties Act had paved way for. Both parties merged overnight, making the split impossible. Having failed to achieve the set target, Oli’s administration scrapped both ordinances four days after their issuance.
Over the course of this controversy, PM Oli has faced wide criticism in his own party and beyond. Worse, his commitment to democratic values and his credibility as the nation’s leader have both been called to question. If political stability and the nation’s wellbeing were his priority, why did he introduce such contentious ordinances, especially at a time when Nepal is grappling with the Covid19 crisis?
Even in the early days of Nepal’s democracy, political parties were criticised for horse-trading. In 1995, the then PM Sher Bahadur Deuba was accused of similarly abducting MP Bhakta Bahadur Rokaya while sending five MPs from the ruling coalition on a fully sponsored holiday to Bangkok. The main opposition CPN-UML, had also housed MPs at a luxury hotel, lavishing expensive food and drinks on them in the hopes of garnering support for a vote of no confidence against Deuba.
Party splits continued even after 2008’s Constituent Assembly elections. The Political Parties Act was established to enforce tighter rules around the creation and split of political parties after the country witnessed a series of dirty political games with politicians vying for power. Such malpractices would be curbed with the mandatory requirement of 40 percent support from party central committees as well as MPs. Political parties also required a minimum threshold of 1.5 percent to win seats under the proportional representation system. These measures have significantly reduced the number of political parties represented in the parliament, a move considered by many as desirable.
Oli and his supporters have not been able to justify why they introduced the ordinances so abruptly. Although the ordinances have been scrapped under enormous pressure, this incident has undoubtedly made a dent in Oli’s reputation and may prove costly for him and his party in the future.