Kathmandu, Nepal – Nepal’s president has dissolved the parliament for the second time in less than six months and scheduled snap elections, prompting court challenges and plunging the country into fresh political turmoil as it battles a “catastrophic” surge in coronavirus infections.
With the Supreme Court set to hear petitions against President Bidya Devi Bhandari’s order on Thursday, dozens of people have rallied in main Nepalese cities against what they say is a bid by the head of state to protect Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli’s political career.
Oli, 69, had renewed calls for a fresh election after he lost a confidence vote earlier this month.
Critics say Bhandari’s midnight order on Saturday (6:15pm on Friday) came when it became clear that opposition leader Sher Bahadur Deuba from the Nepali Congress party had obtained the parliamentary support required to become the South Asian nation’s next prime minister.
The crisis is threatening renewed instability in the Himalayan country, which saw 10 changes in governments in as many years prior to the 2017 election that brought Oli and his Nepali Communist Party to power.
There is also fear the turmoil could worsen Nepal’s COVID-19 crisis.
Already, hospitals in the country are running out of oxygen and beds, while some regions are resorting to mass cremations as the death toll mounts.
“This is not the right time for power politics,” said Rojina Shrestha, a lecturer at the Rapti Babai Campus in the western city of Tulsipur. “The politicians’ immediate focus should be on obtaining oxygen and vaccines. People are dying. Dissolving the parliament and holding a fresh election will not help those battling the pandemic.”
How did things get bad?
The latest crisis has its immediate roots in the fracturing of Oli’s Nepali Communist Party. Since last year, a faction of the ruling party has been accusing the prime minister of authoritarianism and sidelining them when making decisions and appointing members to key commissions and watchdog bodies.
Rumours of a possible no-confidence vote swirled in December and Bhandari dissolved the parliament on Oli’s request. The chamber was the first elected since the end of a bloody Maoist rebellion and the abolition of Nepal’s 200-year-old monarchy in 2008.
Bhandari’s decision to dissolve the House in December immediately set off nationwide protests and several petitions at the Supreme Court.
Alarmed by the unrest, Nepal’s powerful northern neighbour China even sent an envoy to mediate between the two Communist Party factions. But to no avail.
In February, the Supreme Court overturned Bhandari’s decision and reinstated the parliament, paving the way for a no-confidence vote against Oli. He lost, as expected, but the opposition struggled to form a government.
Bhandari finally set a May 21 deadline for parties to demonstrate a majority.
At the eleventh hour – in moves that caught the Nepalese public by surprise – Oli and Deuba staked claims to lead the country, saying they had obtained the majority in the 275-member House.
Oli said he had the backing of 153 members, while Deuba had claimed 149 legislators assured support to him. Together, their figures exceeded the total number of members in parliament, and it was clear one of the two was claiming more support than he actually had.
Instead of taking pains to verify the signatures, Bhandari issued a second proclamation, dissolving the parliament. She justified her decision, saying neither Oli nor Deuba had been able to prove they had obtained a majority. She went on to announce the date of elections – which would take place in two phases – on November 12 and November 19 – more than a year before the parliament’s five-year term is due to expire.
“What we have here is a prime minister who is hell-bent on conducting elections on his leadership – not because of a challenge from the opposition but because of a split within the ruling party,” said Hari Sharma, an analyst at the Kathmandu-based think-tank Social Science Baha.
“However, in Nepal, we have a constitution that limits frequent elections. Because of our history of unstable governments, the constitution of 2015, which has been in force for three and a half years, makes it very difficult for anyone to dismiss the parliament. There are several steps that must be fulfilled before the parliament is dissolved.”
Those steps, according to Sharma, included allowing Oli and Deuba to test their strength on the parliament floor.
“The president must exhaust all possibilities at forming a government and unfortunately, she has not behaved according to the constitutional procedures or its spirit,” he added.
But Krishna Bhakta Pokharel, an MP close to Oli, justified the dissolution of the parliament, saying the opposition was trying to “steal” MPs from the ruling party.
“There was no other option than going for a fresh election. It was legal and constitutional compulsion as the opposition parties were neither giving alternatives nor allowing smooth functioning of the government,” he told Al Jazeera.
How have Nepalis reacted?
The call for a fresh election appears to have angered many in Nepal.
The hashtag #NoVaccineNoVote has been trending in the Nepali Twittersphere, with social media users urging Oli to focus on the pandemic rather than the elections.
With a pandemic spreading rapidly, in-person protests remain small and scattered. In the capital Kathmandu, several activists defied a strict lockdown on Tuesday to burned effigies of Oli, while in the western tourist hub of Pokhara, dozens of demonstrators held torchlight rallies on Sunday night to protest against Bhandari’s move.
Meanwhile, five political parties and groups of legislators who oppose the dissolution of parliament petitioned the Supreme Court on Tuesday to recognise Deuba’s leadership claim.
Only 146 MPs signed the petition filed at the Supreme Court. Three MPs from Oli’s party, who had earlier supported Deuba’s claim on the premiership, did not sign in the court petition.
“This is not just an attack on the constitution, but also an attack on the poor people who are fighting against the pandemic and hunger,” Pampha Bhusal, one of the signatories, told Al Jazeera. “Everyone should protest against this regressive step.”
Deuba also criticised Bhandari’s move in a statement on Saturday that urged “all democratic forces” to stand up and protect the constitution.
Pushpa Kamal Dahal, the leader of the anti-Oli faction of the Nepali Communist Party, told reporters in Kathmandu that “we believe that the court will once again eventually rule in favour of democracy, constitution and against authoritarianism”.
Bhandari has not commented on the allegations against her, but Oli met the press on Sunday, and insisted the president’s decision was well within her constitutional rights. He also accused his opponents of “running from elections because they lack the people’s support”.
“They are afraid of elections. Their profession is to create instability,” he said, also accusing members of his party who have thrown their support behind Deuba as “undisciplined and undignified”.
How is the turmoil hurting Nepal’s COVID-19 fight?
Healthcare workers are expressing concern that the turmoil could further hamper Nepal’s battle against the pandemic.
In recent weeks, the country of 30 million people has been registering more than 8,000 cases per day with nearly half of all tests coming back positive.
Since the outbreak began, health authorities have recorded 528,848 cases and more than 6,700 deaths, with the last few weeks witnessing a record number of deaths.
The surge has overwhelmed Nepal’s healthcare system, which was already struggling with shortages of staff and equipment prior to the pandemic. The country has limited hospital bed capacity, while most healthcare facilities outside of large cities do not have the machines for the Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) tests that are so critical for timely diagnosis of COVID-19.
Dr Basudev Pandey, an epidemiologist, appealed to politicians to put aside their differences and unite to defeat the virus.
“The political crises have diverted attention and energy of all politicians elsewhere while our focus should have been on the pandemic. We couldn’t be better prepared and make timely arrangements of oxygen, ventilators, medicine and other supplies,” he told Al Jazeera.
“Instead, our leaders were busy holding protests or rallies and attending religious gatherings. We have seen more political meetings than meetings held to formulate strategies for the pandemic.”
Alok Lamsal, a lecturer at Ratna Rajya Campus in Kathmandu, meanwhile questioned the feasibility of holding an election while the pandemic was going on.
“This political drama is not at all acceptable because people are facing extreme hardship,” he told Al Jazeera. “Our whole energy should go on containing the coronavirus pandemic.”