Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli may have averted an impending crisis in the ruling Nepal Communist Party for now. But, as soon as the coronavirus threat dies down, there could yet be stiff opposition to the functioning of his government from the opposition parties.
The opposition parties—chiefly the Nepali Congress, the Samajbadi Party, the Rastriya Janata Party Nepal, and the Rastriya Prajatantra Party—had little coordination before the federal government came up with two controversial ordinances on April 20. The ordinances, later withdrawn, allowed for easier splits of Nepali political parties and restricted the role of the main opposition party in the constitutional council, the body tasked with making appointments to vital constitutional bodies.
At the time, even if opposition parties were critical of government functioning, no one was demanding the prime minister’s resignation. In fact, when the anti-coronavirus lockdown was put in place, the opposition parties fully supported the government. Yet the ordinances brought with ‘mala fide’ intent changed all that.
It helped bring about the long-delayed merger between the Samajbadi and the RJPN, the two Madhes-based parties, which could now spell trouble for the Oli government.
Now big and small opposition parties are preparing to fight the government’s ‘totalitarian tendencies’, which includes asking PM Oli to step down.
Political analyst Puranjan Acharya who closely tracks Congress internal politics says much depends on party leadership. “Congress President as well as its other office-bearers are failing to effectively check the Oli government’s totalitarian tendency,” says Acharya, adding that the second generation NC leaders should step forward.
Countering ‘divide and conquer’
Three opposition parties—the NC, the new Janata Samajbadi Party, and the Rastriya Prajatantra Party (RPP)—had even issued a joint statement deploring government functioning, and they plan on moving ahead together. “The current government is headed towards totalitarianism by destroying democratic norms and values… We vow to collectively fight this,” says their joint statement released last week. The pair of ordinances riled the opposition parties as they supposedly demonstrated the PM’s intent on ‘dividing and conquering’ the opposition. Another issue that angered them was the ‘abduction’ by Oli’s close associates of Dr. Surendra Yadav, a Samajbadi lawmaker, in order to split the Madhes-based party. Had the party split, the seven breakaway members were scheduled to join the Oli-led government.
Even though opposition parties have their respective agendas and don’t see eye to eye on everything, they plan on developing an alliance on common issues. The top agenda for Madhes-based parties has always been constitution amendment. They supported the Oli government so that the constitution could be amended. They now feel betrayed. Then RJPN never joined the government. Nonetheless, it helped Oli garner two-thirds support in the federal parliament, but pulled its support after Oli ruled out amendment before the next elections.
The Samajwadi Party Nepal, which unlike the RJPN was a part of the federal government, parted ways this past December, citing the failure of PM Oli to take an initiative to amend the national charter.
Though the NC and the Janata Samajbadi have come together against the government, there are some ideological differences between them. For instance, the Congress does not support the Madhes-centric parties’ ethnicity-based federal model.
Janata Samajbadi leader Keshav Jha acknowledges efforts to form an anti-government alliance between three opposition forces. “Though we have differences with the Congress and the RPP, there could be alliance on corruption, bad governance and other people-centric issues,” says Jha. After the lockdown is over, the Janata Samajbadi is preparing to hit the streets in Madhes with the support of other backers of identity politics.
The RPP, currently led by Kamal Thapa, Prakash Chandra Lohani and Pashupati Shumsher Rana, however, is still undecided about joining the opposition front. The party decision to join a meeting called by the Congress last week generated controversy. Thapa expressed his dissatisfaction over Lohani and Rana signing a joint press statement issued by opposition parties. “There are views in the party that we should retain our separate identity instead of joining any block,” says Mohan Shrestha, an RPP central committee member. Shrestha, however, says the RPP will harden its anti-government position in the days ahead.
Holding Oli to account
The opposition parties are likely to mount their protests against the Oli government, either collectively or on their own. And when the national parliament opens for budget session, they will try to hold the federal government to account for its supposed failure to contain the novel coronavirus contagion.
NC Central Working Committee member Shekhar Koirala says time is ripe for opposition parties to band together against the government's intent of destroying democratic values. “Minimizing the role of opposition party in the constitutional council suggests the government plans to control constitutional bodies, and destroy the principle of separation of powers. The government is on a totalitarian path, and the NC shoulders the responsibility of protecting democratic norms and values,” says Koirala. He thinks that as the main opposition party, it is the responsibility of Nepali Congress to bring all opposition forces together.