On April 21, the news of detection of 11 new Covid-19 cases in Nepal added to public unease. They were already struggling to digest the federal government’s untimely decision to amend some important laws. The previous day, the KP Oli-led cabinet had proposed legal changes—swiftly endorsed by President Bidya Devi Bhandari—that made it easier to split political parties. They also made the role of the leader of the main opposition party redundant in the constitutional council, a body tasked with making appointments to vital constitutional bodies. Whatever gloss PM Oli tries to put on these changes, they are unmistakable signs of his desire to cling to positions of power.
If co-chair Pushpa Kamal Dahal and other senior Nepal Communist Party leaders gang up against him, Oli can now split the ruling party with the support of 40 percent of its federal lawmakers. He can then potentially retain his top positions in the government and the breakaway party—in what will be a classic case of cutting off the nose to spite the face. Nepalis are struggling to understand the need for such legal shenanigans when government attention should have been firmly on the Covid-19 crisis. The hope was that this government, with its near two-thirds support in the national legislature, would serve out its five years and give the country much-needed political stability. But untamed ambitions of individual leaders could yet again upend this hope.
The pair of new ordinances makes us question the ability of the NCP-led government to collectively fight the corona pandemic, and threatens to snuff out any hope of the country’s swift post-pandemic economy recovery. Instead, if and when the corona threat dies down, the country could see a repeat of the kind of mad scramble for power that had become a hallmark of the post-1990 polity. Oli can offer no credible justification for his creeping authoritarianism and for inviting yet another era of instability and uncertainty—and certainly not at this time of national emergency.
People had overwhelmingly plumped for Oli and his communist coalition in the 2017 elections, rewarding his resolute stand against India during the blockade. How fast has Oli’s star fallen! His calculations that the new amendments will allow him to cement his power could be wrong. Oli seems to have learned little from the self-inflicted wounds of Nepali ruling parties over the past three decades. Moreover, with his latest attempt at power-grab, the near-septuagenarian prime minister has run a bulldozer over democratic norms and done irreparable harm to his party and his country.