It is disingenuous of ruling parties to argue that as the constitution allows any number of ministers in the ‘transitional phase’, they are perfectly entitled to keep expanding the cabinet size. In fact, the constitution clearly says that the number of ministers should be capped at 25, which is a benchmark of a kind. Moreover, expanding the cabinet is illegal at a time the election code of conduct is already in place. Yet Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba on Monday inducted four new ministers into his cabinet, including a corruption-accused, bringing the total to 54, by far the largest cabinet size in the history of democratic Nepal. The ruling Congress-Maoist coalition is acting like they are a law unto themselves. Given our history of misuse of state resources during election time, inducting new ministers right now will, in one way or the other, influence the third phase of local elections, and perhaps the provincial and federal elections that follow even more. The little hope that Deuba had learned from his past mistakes—he was, after all, the prime minister who in the mid-1990s institutionalized the practice of humoring his ministers with expensive SUVs—is now dashed.
With it, the credibility of the Election Commission of Ayodhee Prasad Yadav is also in tatters. The commission has been able to do precious little save issue empty threats of punitive action should anyone break election code. The commission is reportedly unhappy with the way it has been ‘demonized’ by the media: With the whole government machinery bent on breaking election code, what can it do on its own? We understand that it is not easy to work when you are under constant pressure of powerful politicians. But perhaps the ruling parties would not have dared to so wantonly violate election code had the commission, from the start, taken a strong stand. Yet from the time of the announcement of local elections back in February, the commission seemed happy to let the ruling parties have their way. When the elections were announced, it inexplicably delayed imposition of election code by a week, allowing the government to transfer scores of senior bureaucrats and police personnel, clearly to influence upcoming elections. With such laxity at the start, the commission then found it progressively harder to impose its writ. For their own credibility the five election commissioners must show more courage in standing up to vested interests.
The ruling coalition is also setting a dangerous precedent. Future coalition governments—and with its electoral system, Nepal is bound to have such governments into the foreseeable future—will find it all too easy to cite the example of this cabinet for why they too are under ‘coalition compulsions’ to have big cabinets, transition or no transition. If the constitution is the hurdle, they can always amend it. Deuba may one day be remembered as the prime minister who was able to successfully conduct all three sets of constitutionally-mandated elections, and thereby helping end the protracted political transition. Yet his rampant abuse of power and misuse of state resources will forever taint his political legacy.