Last week, the Election Commission formally recognised and registered the Communist Party of Nepal that came into existence after the merger of the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist and the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist Centre. While recognising the new party, the EC ignored constitutionally-mandated requirements like the need for parties to reserve one-third of all posts at different levels in the party structure, including the central committee, to women. A day before the EC decision, Prime Minister K P Oli reprimanded more than three dozen women leaders, some of them parliamentarians, and warned them of disciplinary action if they got influenced by the agenda of “outsiders” and spoke out in public fora.
Both these examples indicate how the executive has been able to silence the constitutional bodies, and legitimate and constitutionally guaranteed aspirations, within the party machinery. It is not the constitution, but the will of the mighty and the powerful that now prevails in Nepal.
The post of the chief justice has been vacant for nearly three months though the constitution insists that the post be filled up within 30 days of a vacancy arising. Acting chief justice, Deepak Joshi, has been shuttling between the homes of PM Oli and the ruling party’s co-chairman, Pushpa Kamal Dahal, seeking his appointment to be confirmed. It is learnt that Joshi confided in some lawyers that he can’t boldly present himself in the court at this “stage”.
In a way, the Supreme Court appears as compromised as the Election Commission while dealing with issues that discomfort the government. The apex court’s visible silence or helplessness when the government decided to “pardon” former Maoist lawmaker and murder convict, Balkrishna Dhungel, on the occasion of the Republic Day, was an example of the ruthless manner in which the executive controls the judiciary.
The ruling coalition, which now has a two-thirds majority in parliament, has already decided to give immunity to parliamentarians facing criminal trials in the court from suspension. Despite PM Oli’s repeated statements of zero tolerance towards corruption and criminal offences, he has not annulled the prevailing practice that no cabinet decision can be investigated by the anti-corruption body, the Commission of Inquiry into Abuse of Authority. Such blanket immunity to ministers and lawmakers will surely demoralise constitutional bodies, including the judiciary, and turn them servile to the executive.
And how safe is the constitution in the hands of the ruling party? Last week, soon after the Socialist Forum joined the ruling coalition, Dahal announced that the party will opt for the presidential form of government, with a directly-elected executive president. This amounts to altering a basic feature of the present constitution. While Oli has said it is the government’s responsibility to execute the constitution and ensure political stability, a powerful lobby within the ruling coalition is openly talking about subverting the constitution from within. They seem to be sending confusing and contradictory messages. That the ruling party is divided on the constitution raises questions about political stability.
Last week, the government presented its first federal budget. It contained an allocation for building infrastructure, including the railway network that was more symbolic. The fact is that the government is expecting its competing neighbours, India and China, to build Nepal’s infrastructure. The budget also revealed an overdose of misplaced self-confidence.
Finance minister Yubaraj Khatiwada announced that the $1.8-billion West Seti Hydro Project, which China’s Three Gorges Corporation had undertaken to construct, will instead be built by Nepal. However, the investment board headed by PM Oli contradicted the minister and said the government was considering certain amendments that China had sought in the initial agreement. A pull out by China, or Nepal scrapping the deal after China suggested that the generation capacity be lowered to 580 MW-620 MW from 750 MW at the same cost, ahead of Oli’s China visit, will be seen as a bad omen in the bilateral context. China, of course, has indicated that it will be magnanimous in investing in Nepal. However, Beijing is reported to have worries about corruption in Nepal affecting the cost and execution of projects.
China is not the only country to raise the issue of corruption. In June 2015, then prime minister, Sushil Koirala, had to assure Japan that the government will prevent siphoning of funds secured from international donors for post-quake reconstruction. Oli, like Koirala, has promised zero tolerance towards corruption. But perceptions, at home and abroad, regarding corruption in Nepal seem unchanged.