Parliamentary whiplash

Illustration: SUBHAS RAI

We will finally know in 12 July the fate of the dissolved House, whether or not K P Oli stays on as prime minister, if Sher Bahadur Deuba becomes prime minister for the fifth time in 20 years, or if Nepalis have to vote in early elections in November.

After two weeks of deliberations, on 12 July the Supreme Court’s Constitutional bench is set to decide on writ petitions challenging Prime Minister Oli’s dissolution of the Lower House and President Bidya Devi Bhandari’s rejection of leadership bids by both Deuba and Oli on 21 May. 

Throughout the submissions by petitioners and government lawyers, depositions by the four members of the amicus curiae, as well as questions from the bench, the debate has boiled down to this: in a multi-party democracy, does the party whip have more legitimacy in a floor test than a non-party individual vote?

Can MPs from a ruling party seeking a confidence vote side against it, and even back the candidacy of an opposition leader to replace their own prime minister? 

There were spirited arguments by lawyers from both sides. The petitioners went beyond censuring Oli to accuse President Bhandari of complicity and failing in her duty to protect the Constitution from Oli’s ambition to cling on to power.

Both Oli and his main challenger, former prime minister Madhav Kumar Nepal, have claimed that their actions were constitutional, and it was the other side that is acting against its letter and spirit.

The Constitutional Bench itself was formed last month on the basis of seniority by Chief Justice Cholendra SJB Rana and includes Justices Dipak Kumar Karki, Anand Mohan Bhattarai, Mira Dhungana, Ishwar Prasad Khatiwada. 

We have no way of guessing which argument the individual justices will favour, but if some of its recent judgements overturning Prime Minister Oli’s moves one by one are anything to go by, they may also restore the dissolved House on Monday.

If you remember, after Prime Minister Oli got president Bhandari to dissolve the House for the second time on 21 May, Deuba of the Nepali Congress, Pushpa Kamal Dahal of the Maoist Centre and dissidents from Oli’s own UML and the JSP gathered 149 signatures to stake a claim to form the new government.

Oli got wind of this, and also claimed majority support with all 122 members of his own party and 31 from the JSP, even though rebel factions from both parties had sided with the Deuba-led alliance. 

President Bhandari rejected both claims saying two groups cannot claim a majority. This prompted the politicians from the five-party alliance to file a slew of petitions in the Supreme Court on 24 May, not just challenging the dissolution of the house but also asking that Deuba be declared prime minister.

The fact that the judiciary has to decide on who should be prime minister, which party has a majority in Parliament, shows just how dysfunctional Nepali politics has become. Just because two members from the executive arm cannot get along, they have blurred the separation of powers and dragged the judiciary in to pass a verdict on a matter that should have been decided by the people’s elected representatives in the legislature.

On Monday, we will know if the House will remain dissolved and Oli will lead an election government till polls on 12 and 19 November, or if the President will once more call for members to show a majority in one month. Which is why some young turks in the UML have been desperately trying to prevent the party from splitting because either way it needs to be together to confront the opposition coalition. If the UML unites, no matter what the Supreme Court’s verdict, the opposition alliance will fall apart.

A UML working group has been desperately trying to patch up differences between Oli and Nepal, which is mostly an ego-clash, but also involves compromises like Oli backtracking from his induction of 23 Maoist MPs into the UML Central Committee that diluted Nepal’s clout in the party. Nepal wants either the prime minister ship or party chair, which Oli has flatly rejected. 

The bargaining goes on at great cost to governance at a time when the country faces a pandemic, a disastrous monsoon and an economic crisis. Hopefully, by this time next week the Supreme Court verdict will show us a way out of this rigmarole.

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