Global pandemic has severely impacted various aspects of our social life, including politics. Political impacts are expressed in terms of postponement of elections, curtailment of human rights, suppression and oppression of the opponents, outright banning of political demonstrations and mass meetings, rise in corruption, squeezing civil society spaces and so on and so forth. Pandemic may turn authoritarian regimes into even more harsher regimes, while weakening democratic regimes as they fail to contain the virus. Due to the pandemic situation there is already a slowdown in the global democratization process.
We are yet to observe and assess the full impact of the pandemic on our politics. We are into a double whammy of Covid infection and political virus. It is not sure whether coronavirus is infecting political virus or the political virus is infecting coronavirus. With a slight relaxation in lockdown situations, political demonstrations are already out in the streets. Who knows, in the days ahead, pandemic may provide a pretext to the government for quelling the dissent?
Recently, we shamelessly observed how pandemic infested politics in Gandaki Province. In the province, as a counter to the opposition move to topple the provincial government through no-trust motion, the MPs of the party in power blocked the move by demanding PCR tests from each of them prior to parliamentary proceedings. When voting got due after PCR tests, an MP mysteriously disappeared, withholding voting process, only to be found later taking sanctuary in the Covid isolation ward of a private hospital.
Court and pandemic
Currently, sitting judges in the Constitutional Bench are busy listening to arguments and counter-arguments on the constitutionality of the PM’s move to dissolve parliament and call for early polls. If this scribe is not correct, the judges will have the most difficult time to say something about the pandemic situation in their final verdict. Because in a writ petition filed by Sher Bahadur Deuba, one of the arguments given, inter alia, is that due to Covid-19 it is near impossible to hold the elections. The World Health Organization has listed Nepal as Covid-19 high risk country. In such a situation, holding elections means risking the health and lives of the people. This can be a crime against humanity. Therefore, to avoid this situation, the writ petitioners have pleaded the court to stop unconstitutional declaration of elections.
Can the court refrain from making statements about the pandemic situation in their final verdict? If they cannot, what will they say?
Meanwhile, Prime Minister K P Sharma Oli has defended the case by dismissing Covid-19 argument as baseless. Citing budgetary provisions for vaccine procurement, claiming that the second wave of the virus is under control and by assuring that every Nepali will be vaccinated within six months, he claims that Covid-19 should and would not affect the scheduled elections. His lawyers have defended the PM, citing examples from a number of countries where elections have been held amid Covid-19 crisis. However, they have failed to note that there are at least 78 countries where national and subnational elections have been postponed due to Covid-19 (see the chart).
Given these arguments—for and against Covid-19 and elections—the judges definitely cannot remain quiet. In the earlier verdict on House reinstatement, the judges did spell “additional financial liability” to the general public of elections. If this is so, Covid-19 is an even bigger concern, impacting health and life risks besides additional financial liability.
Earlier, I argued that the political course in Nepal will be determined by the availability or unavailability of vaccines. The situation is even starker now with the judges having to say something about the pandemic situation. We have a hyperbole PM who grumbles over an interim order against his cabinet expansion, saying he has to deal with pandemic sans health minister but, at the same time, provides written response to the court that pandemic will not impact elections.
We have a PM who grumbles over an interim order against his cabinet expansion, saying he has to deal with pandemic sans health minister but provides written response to the court that pandemic will not impact the elections.
It should be noted here that the court, very recently, issued an order to the government for making available second jabs to senior citizens who have been kept waiting after their first jabs. Can the court refrain from making statements about the pandemic situation in their final verdict? If they cannot, what will they say?