A year of political turmoil and ‘politicization of democracy’, 2021 witnessed political parties and their custodians exploit democracy to weaken its basic tenets. Then-Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli dissolved the House of Representatives twice and each time defended his unconstitutional decision, saying fresh elections would buttress Nepali democracy.
Opposition parties dubbed Oli’s move “regressive” yet they too tried to influence the judiciary from the streets in the name of defending democracy. In fact, in 2021, all major political forces tried to use democracy to serve their personal or party interests.
Political analysts thus reckon there was an extreme politicization of democracy in 2021. PM Oli dissolved Parliament on 20 December 2020, and its repercussions were evident throughout 2021. The Supreme Court (SC) invalidated Oli’s move but that didn’t deter him from dissolving the House, again, in May 2021.
Political analyst Chandra Dev Bhatta says 2021 was “the year of politicization of democracy” as power-struggles among political leaders manifested in such a way that they started blaming each other for undermining democracy.
Each labeled the other ‘a threat to democracy’ and went to the extent of splitting their own party, says Bhatta. “In reality, they were only trying to hide their weaknesses.” Not only that, they went a step further and dragged the country’s neighbors into their mess, again all in the name of protecting democracy, adds Bhatta.
The year also saw a hollowing of democratic institutions. For instance, the Election Commission, an independent constitutional body mandated to hold elections and regulate political parties, was hamstrung due to political pressure.
The commission could not take a timely decision on the split of Nepal Communist Party owing to the due influence of political parties, an issue that was later settled in court. This clearly demonstrated compromising of the autonomy of constitutional bodies like the EC, undercutting their credibility.
Appointments in constitutional bodies sans parliamentary hearings came under national and international scrutiny. Appointments in the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), for instance, drew national and international criticism and there were concerns about its independence. The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, in an unprecedented move, even sought clarification from the commission over its autonomy and independence.
Similarly, questions were raised over the appointment process and autonomy of other constitutional bodies.
Moreover, Nepal’s judiciary faced an unprecedented crisis this year. Probably for the first time in the country’s judicial history, SC judges launched a revolt against a sitting Chief Justice, bringing the judicial process to a grinding halt. CJ Cholendra Shumsher Rana was accused of trading court verdicts for political appointments. Similarly, there were accusations of corruption against other judges.
“The judiciary is the guardian of democracy. But then Nepal’s judiciary is in crisis, which means its democracy is also imperiled,” says advocate and another political analyst Dinesh Tripathi. He adds that the judiciary is on the verge of a collapse, and bad governance characterizes all state institutions.
The nexus between politicians and judges also deepened.
Political parties, on the one hand, tried to influence the judiciary to issue verdicts in their favor through street protests and other propaganda machineries. Supreme Court justices, on the other hand, hobnobbed with the politicians, to bargain for favors in exchange.
Similarly, the Parliament came under increasing executive pressure. The Parliament was dissolved twice, only to be revived each time by the judiciary’s help.
In another important development, there was a lot of bad blood between then Prime Minister Oli and Speaker Agni Prasad Sapkota. Several times, the government would close House sessions without consulting the speaker. The war of words between PM Oli and the Speaker affected the principle of separation of powers.
Even after the Parliament’s reinstatement, it was never allowed to function smoothly. The main opposition CPN-UML has been disturbing the House, raising questions over the Speaker’s role.
In fact, due to the executive’s constant inference, the Parliament’s role has been severely constrained. Both KP Sharma Oli- and Sher Bahadur Deuba-led governments showed their lack of commitment to parliamentary supremacy, for instance through the issuance of ordinances by skipping the House of Representatives.
Most ordinances were issued to fulfill petty interests such as splitting parties or making political appointments.
Tripathi says there were attempts to cause massive damage to democracy. There were repeated attacks on the Parliament, the temple of democracy. “There were attempts at no less than to dismantle democracy but fortunately, it survived,” says Tripathi.
The office of the president was also dragged into controversy. President Bidya Devi Bhandari was accused of siding with then Prime Minister Oli instead of playing a neutral arbiter.
Along with the backsliding of democracy, the general public’s hopes for political stability—rekindled with the formation of a two-thirds majority government in 2018—were dashed. The window of stability had closed and 2021 had sowed seeds for another bout of political instability.
The powerful Nepal Communist Party (NCP) suffered a three-way split, which now means the chances of a single-party majority government is slim in the near future. NCP missed a historic chance of steering the country on the path of political stability and economic development.
Now, there is a fragile five-party coalition government that could crash any time, plunging the country into uncertainty.
Analyst Bhatta points out that the intra- and inter-party tensions that were the result of the leaders’ unchecked political ambitions have marred Nepali democracy. Over time, everything ended up in court and Nepal’s democracy became a “legal issue” and not a “popular one” based on people’s sovereignty.
If things go as planned, 2022 will see the start of three-tier elections. Timely elections could heal the damages inflicted upon democracy in 2021.
But advocate Tripathi isn’t optimistic as Nepali democracy is already on a shaky ground. “We can say democracy is on the verge of a collapse due to our weak state institutions. Even though the Parliament was reinstated, it is defunct. Moreover, it is no more a place to champion people’s voices and aspirations, which is not a healthy sign for our democracy,” says Tripathi.
This year the major political parties held their General Conventions electing new leaderships yet serious lapses were seen in their practice of internal democracy. Tripathi says almost all parties once again failed to ensure internal democracy, their long-standing vice. “There can be no democracy without internal party democracy,” says Tripathi.