Some democratic countries using the disease as an excuse to stifle dissent, squeeze the media and abuse emergency powers. Other elected governments which have failed to manage the epidemic effectively, or have shown a disregard for the vulnerable, resort to extra-constitutional measures to cover up their deficiencies.
The Oli administration is guilty of both. The pre-coronavirus legislations on media control hang like a sword over the heads of journalists. The prime minister himself accused reporters this week of exaggerating the plight of tens of thousands trapped by the lockdown. He has accused the media of having a political agenda in exposing his secretariat’s nexus with businesses profiteering in procurement contracts of medical equipment from China.
Even before the pandemic, disillusionment was running high. The Oli government was wracked by one scandal a week – the real estate heist in Baluwatar, the access given to Yeti Holdings over former royal property, the security printing press deal in which Oli’s trusted Information Minister was caught on tape negotiating a $6 million kickback. And now, the blanket coverage in the media of people left hungry, tired and cashless by the lockdown has exposed the communist government’s lack of sensitivity to the proletariat.
Physically weakened by his second kidney transplant, the politically isolated within his own party, the beleaguered prime minister made a surprise move on Monday by getting the Cabinet to pass two ordinances, one of which will make it easier to legally split a political party. This sent a shock wave through the NCP, brought howls of protest from coalition partners and the opposition, and a wave of outrage from commentators and social media.
Indeed, the timing was all wrong. Why was Oli in such a tearing hurry to allow political parties to split, when the country, and the world, is going through one of its worst crises in recent times? This was the time to focus on figuring out a post-COVID-19 exit strategy, and getting the economy cranked up again. For this, the country needs all political parties to row in the same direction.
What the ordinance proves is that for the prime minister, his own political longevity is more important than the country’s ability to survive the pandemic and its economic fallout. His goal is still to prevent his arch-nemesis Pushpa Kamal Dahal from succeeding him as prime minister for which he is trying to thwart a possible no-confidence vote against him by holding up the threat of splitting the party.
But what the move exposed is a wholesale disregard for democratic norms, constitutionalism, and an undermining of an elected parliament. This will force the country into prolonged instability. And instead of making him stronger, the move has weakened Prime Minister Oli.