Sher Bahadur Deuba, who became Nepal’s prime minister for the fifth time on July 13, inherited a government facing multiple problems, including rising COVID-19 infections, economic crisis, illiberal governance, and corruption. Instead of tackling these problems, Deuba has spent much of the last two months finding ways to divide other political parties.
On August 18, Deuba introduced an ordinance that allows any group that has the support of 20 percent of a party’s central committee or of its members in parliament to quit the mother party and register a new one.
In effect, the ordinance has lowered the threshold for splitting a party from 40 percent support in both the central committee and the parliamentary party to 20 percent support either in the central committee or the parliamentary party.
Thus, Deuba has made it easier for political parties to split and register new ones.
Several parties, including the Communist Party of Nepal-United Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML) and the Janata Samajbadi Party (JSP) have split following the passage of the ordinance.
Madhav Nepal, one of the oldest members of the CPN-UML registered a new party, the Communist Party of Nepal – Unified-Socialist (CPN-US), while Mahanta Thakur of the JSP has formed the Loktantrik Samajwadi Party (LSP). Former health minister Hridayesh Tripathi is also planning to form a new right-wing party.
But after splitting two parties, the ordinance has become “an albatross around his [Deuba’s] neck” as it is standing in the way of cabinet expansion. The JSP, a coalition partner, has said that it will not extend support to Deuba’s cabinet appointments if he does not repeal the controversial ordinance.
Additionally, Deuba is now worried that the ordinance will trigger a split within his own party. He is therefore reportedly anxious to withdraw the ordinance.
Besides, the Deuba government has failed to get its budget passed amid a political row with the CPN-UML over the switching of parties of 14 of its parliamentarians. All government spending has ceased since Wednesday.
Over a year ago, when Deuba’s predecessor Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli had tried to introduce a similar ordinance, he was widely criticized for encouraging instability by easing the splitting of parties. Now Deuba, is being criticized for being no different from Oli.
It is two months since Deuba took charge. His failure to expand his cabinet and to give his government full shape, especially at a time when the country is in the midst of a pandemic and its foreign policy is in disarray, has drawn criticism. It has exposed internal wrangling for ministerial posts and the fragility of his coalition government.
Post-ordinance, six national parties have emerged in Nepal’s political arena. If it is not removed now, the process of political realignment will continue, derailing all hope for political stability in the Himalayan country. Past experience shows that coalition governments do not function well in Nepal.
Months ago, the Supreme Court intervened to oust former prime minister Oli from power. This had paved the way for Deuba to become the new prime minister. It had ignited heated debate in Nepal.
Constitutional experts are now wondering whether the Deuba government’s recent ordinance will prompt another intervention from the apex court.
“The multiparty system is on the verge of collapse in Nepal. The Government has passed a very unconstitutional ordinance which will erode organizational discipline in all political parties,” Bipin Adhikari, a constitutional expert tweeted. The Supreme Court is under pressure again “to correct the course” the government has taken, he said.
There are several issues that need the Deuba government’s immediate attention. There are border tensions with India; India still occupies Nepali-claimed territories and the prime minister is avoiding dealing with the matter. Traditionally, the Nepali Congress has had close ties with the Indian establishment.
The Nepali Congress has been mum on the alleged killing of Nepali national Jaya Singh Dhami by personnel of India’s Sashastra Seema Bal (SSB). Apparently SSB officials cut the cable Dhami was using to cross the River Kali. Indian officials are denying any involvement in his death but local witnesses confirm the incident. Nepali nationals have suffered discrimination and abuse at the India-Nepal border from SSB officials.
Deuba is keen on taking forward projects of both China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the U.S. Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC). While this will enable Nepal’s balancing between the two powers, it could complicate implementation of projects. Nepali observers say that the Chinese will oppose implementation of projects under the MCC if Deuba selects non-strategic BRI projects only. Meanwhile, the U.S. is pushing Deuba to get the MCC pact ratified by parliament.
Instead of finding ways to deal with geopolitical competition between the U.S. and China or between India and China in a way that benefits Nepal, Deuba is busy shutting up those who criticize his handling of foreign policy issues.
Nepal’s Ministry of Home Affairs issued statements early this month warning those “making negative and threatening comments… targeting the development projects being carried out with support from a friendly country” with severe punishment under existing laws. It did not name the “friendly country,” but it is widely believed that the ministry was referring to the U.S. and projects under the MCC.
In another statement, the MHA threatened those “burning effigies, chanting slogans and staging demonstrations” against the “Prime Minister of a neighboring country” with legal action. This is aimed at those protesting against India’s role in Nepal.
Deuba’s shutting down criticism of his policies will not make the many problems that Nepal is grappling with go away. He needs to address these problems. They deserve his focused attention.