An unceremonious President

The election of president should not involve such wheeling-dealing, in the spirit of inclusion it is the turn of a respected Janjati or Dalit candidate.

A meeting of council of ministers this week. Photo: RSS

Nepal’s President is a ceremonial post with only residual powers. Why then is there such a tug-o-war going on about who gets to replace President Bidya Devi Bhandari after her five-year term expires on 13 March?

Why are the supreme men of the three main parties acting as if the sky will fall if they do not get their candidate to be elected the next president?

Because they know how much the President’s constitutional power can be abused to do the bidding of the prime minister, as has happened repeatedly in the past four years. Bhandari’s candidacy for president was strongly backed by K P Oli when he was prime minister, and she quickly gave her stamp of approval when Parliament was dissolved to stave off a challenge from Pushpa Kamal Dahal and Sher Bahadur Deuba.

The move was stopped by the Supreme Court, and Deuba succeeded Oli as prime minister. But when he tried to pass ordinances on the citizenship bill, to allow parties to split, or give blanket pardon for war crimes, President Bhandari was not as prompt in signing them.   

After the November election, Oli pulled a fast one and got Dahal to defect from Deuba to form the 7-party coalition which is currently in power. In return for letting Dahal have a first go at being prime minister, Oli secured a deal to have the posts of President and Speaker of the House of Representatives.

But such is the level of mistrust between him and Oli, that Dahal soon started having misgivings about letting the UML have so much power. And because of Oli’s past behaviour, Dahal and Deuba feared that giving the UML all three posts of president, prime minister and speaker would make Oli all-powerful after two-and-half years.

As per the agreement with the Maoists, the UML already has its Devraj Ghimire as Speaker, while the RSP got Indira Rana Magar in as Deputy Speaker. Now that a weighted electoral college of federal and provincial assembly members needs to elect a new President, the UML is in a collision course with the Maoists and NC.

The Election Commission has set the date for the election on 9 March, just two days before President Bhandari’s term is over. The NC says the election should be on 11 February, one month before the president steps down, as stipulated by the Constitution.

But more contentious than the date is whether the UML will maintain its support for the 7-party coalition if it does not get its candidate to be president.  

Dahal got Deuba to support the government despite the NC being in the opposition, reportedly with the assurance that a Congress nominee would get to be president. But Maoists and the NC combined do not have the numbers to do that. Having given his word to both the UML and the NC about the presidentship, Dahal is in a bind, and has said he is seeking “a national consensus” on a candidate.

This is where the high drama surrounding the Supreme Court verdict on 20 January about the RSP’s Rabi Lamichhane’s citizenship becomes critical. Lamichhane was forced to step down as Home Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, but this week applied and got back his citizenship, and was reinstated as party boss.

There is now a move to file a case against him for breach of the Citizenship Act, and make him ineligible to hold office, while Lamichhane with backing from the UML, is trying to regain his Home Minister post. The UML’s claim for presidentship would be bolstered by Lamichhane continuing to be a powerful member of the Cabinet, and Oli’s game plan is to keep the coalition intact.

The NC is likely to field Krishna Sitaula or Ram C Paudel as president, while Baburam Bhattarai could also be a candidate from the Maoist party when it unites with the Nepal Socialist Party and becomes the CPN-Socialist. Oli appears to want President Bhandari to continue for a second term, and failing that may put forward Subhas Nembang.

The post of president should not involve such political wheeling-dealing. Ideally it is the turn of a Janjati or Dalit candidate to represent the spirit of inclusion enshrined in the Constitution. But more importantly, it should be someone who is a respected a-political person – and there are plenty of  Nepalis to choose from.