Nepal’s President Announces Fresh Elections Amid Continuing Political Upheaval

The decision comes amid regional geopolitical churn and a deadly second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. How Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli navigates both will determine his future.

On May 21, Nepal’s President Bidya Devi Bhandari dissolved the country House of Representatives and proposed general elections on November 12 and 19 following the recommendation of the council of ministers. Bhandari’s announcement comes amid a deadly second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic sweeping through the country.

Bhandari made the announcement after it emerged that no single party in Nepal’s parliament had the numbers to form a government. The build-up to her decision has been convoluted.

On May 13, Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli was reappointed as prime minister as the leader of the largest bloc (121 seats in the House of Representatives) after opposition parties failed to form a government (which would have required 136 seats). Oli had 30 days to win a vote of confidence. The Nepali Congress has 63 seats, and the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Center), led by Oli opponent Pushpa Kamal Dahal, 54.

Local media reported that opposition parties had majority numbers, but the claim couldn’t be verified. Oli supporters refuted the claim.

Weak opposition forces and their failure to form an alliance have benefited Oli as he intends to hold general elections rather than have to navigate a non-functioning parliament. Oli’s outreach to the third-largest Janata Samajwadi Party (JSP) and its chairman Mahantha Thakur has also played a pivotal role as the party holds 34 seats. Thakur’s faction within the JSP has 12 seats and has supported Oli. But other JSP members, including former Law Minister Upendra Yadav and former Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai, have opposed Oli.

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Oli, perhaps with elections in mind, has agreed with Thakur to meet the JSP’s demands including constitution and citizenship amendment, and the release of Resham Lal Chaudhary and other JSP members from prison.

Oli had dissolved the parliament on December 20 last year, although the Supreme Court reinstated it on February 23. Dahal told local press that he believed the court would decide on the latest dissolution.

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This is the second time that the parliament has been dissolved with Oli at the helm, and opposition parties are accusing the president of being complicit with Oli’s unconstitutional maneuvers.

On May 23, five opposition parties decided to submit their dissent note to the Supreme Court, urging the judiciary to rescind the presidential ruling, and vowed to protest.

Local observers watching the developments closely argue that this imbroglio was bound to have happened. Meanwhile, Nepal’s parliament has been non-functional since it was dissolved in December amid a deadly second wave of the pandemic.

Whether new elections do take place will crucially depend on how the pandemic second wave plays out. One possibility is that the government may declare a state of emergency on health grounds, paving the way for fresh elections.

Local analysts say Oli has gotten stronger and more powerful because of the dramatic political turmoil following the Supreme Court’s reinstatement of the parliament. They view the latest presidential announcement as further approval of Oli’s December 20 move, and say that it might serve as a message to Nepali voters that there’s no alternative to Oli or the dissolution of the parliament.

But the road ahead for politics in Nepal might not be easy.

The Madhav Nepal faction of Oli’s United Marxist Leninist (UML) party today announced that they are forming a new political party while supporting the opposition. The UML party has decided to take action against those who have not supported Oli.

Many suggest that since last year, Oli has consolidated power by appealing to a range of foreign powers and that he seems to be inching closer to the Indian establishment. He plans to win more seats in the Madhesi-majority majority in Province No. 2 bordering India, and for that, he needs the JSP’s support.

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On May 22, JSP leaders Thakur and Mahato met Oli at his residence and visited the Indian Embassy in Kathmandu. Since the infamous informal Indian blockade of Nepal in 2015, New Delhi has changed its tactics and kept quiet about its moves. But the recent developments suggest that India is silently supporting Oli. The United States also seems to favor Oli; the Ministry of Forestry and Environment recently approved the Environmental Impact Assessment of the Electricity Transmission Project of the United States Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) grant.

Amid the diplomatic maneuvering, the Oli government had been reluctant to accept additional Chinese vaccines in the past, with the end result that the Nepali public has found itself amid a complicated geopolitical game around vaccines. On May 26, following a telephone conversation between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Bhandari, China’s ambassador to Nepal Hou Yanqi announced that Beijing will provide 1 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine to Nepal on a grant.

The past has shown that Nepali politicians like Oli often resort to ultra-nationalism and anti-India rhetoric to rise to power but work toward furthering their own agenda in the end after achieving it. This, in turn, frustrates foreign powers because of the apparent unpredictability of Nepali politics. This time is no different, and despite foreign powers asserting themselves in Nepal’s politics, the onus to keep Nepal’s fractured democracy alive and thriving lies in the hands of the country’s politicians.