Nepal Court orders Deuba to succeed Oli

Nepali Congress leader Sher Bahadur Deuba will become prime minister for the fifth time on Tuesday. Photo: RSS

For many, the Supreme Court’s restoration on Monday of Nepal’s Parliament for the second time after it was dissolved by Prime Minister K P Oli was a foregone conclusion. What was unexpected was that the apex court also ordered Sher Bahadur Deuba of the Nepali Congress to succeed Oli as prime minister.

And probably the person most surprised by that decision was Deuba himself.

After all, the Constitutional Bench led by Chief Justice Cholendra JB Rana could not have given a different verdict than the one he gave in February when Oli dissolved the Lower House for the first time. But most commentators had felt that ruling on a strictly political matter of who should be prime minister, was a matter for Parliament and beyond the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court.

Chief Justice Rana and his bench obviously did not think so. Since the two demands (restoring the House and naming Deuba PM) were part of the writ petitions filed in the courts by an alliance of anti-Oli parties, he could not logically accept one while rejecting the other.

The Court ordered that Deuba be installed as prime minister by 5pm on Tuesday, and for the House to be reconvened within one week. It also ruled that the 23 UML members who added their signatures to the petition against their own party should not be disciplined, which was also a claim in one of the writs. 

Deuba along with 146 MPs from his own party, with those from the Maoist Centre as well dissident factions of the JSP and the UML had filed the writ on 24 May, soon after President Bidya Bhandar rejected the claim by both the alliance and Oli that they had the majority in the House to form the next government.

The Consitutitonal Bench had heard arguments by both the petitioners as well as government lawyers about whether it was the party whip or the individual member’s right to vote during a floor test in the House. Clearly, the Bench felt that MPs were free to vote of their own free will and did not have to always obey the party line.   

The Constitutional Bench made up of Chief Justice Cholendra JB Rana and justices Dipak Kumar Karki, Mira Khadka, Ishwar Khatiwada and Anandamohan Bhattarai.

Besides Rana, the Constitutional Bench was made up of justices selected on the basis of seniority including Dipak Kumar Karki, Mira Khadka, Ishwar Khatiwada and Anandamohan Bhattarai.

Monday’s decision on the restoration of the House was expected, but few had thought the Supreme Court would go all the way to nominate Deuba and stop any action against the 23 UML dissidents.

Taken together the three decisions represent a big setback for Oli, who had been holding on to power despite a mutiny within the former NCP party from an alliance of Pushpa Kamal Dahal Nepal, and later in his own UML.

Oli had used every trick in the book, from divide and rule, getting members to defect from rival parties, dissolving Parliament and immediately after that staking claims to leadership.

He was even working on a fall-back option till Monday morning in case the Supreme Court decided to restore the House. He had been trying to woo back the Nepal faction into the UML so that even if the House was restored, he could try for another majority in a month.

Negotiators from both sides in a working group had come up with a 10-point deal to patch up differences between Oli and Nepal. But the Court decision has thrown that pact in the air.

The Court decidedly did not agree that the same person could keep claiming to have a majority, and failing, every time. In fact, Oli must have seen it coming because it had been overturning one by one his increasingly desperate moves to remain in office right up to the court hearings on the second dissolution of the Lower House on 22 May. 

Petitioners presenting their arguments at Court’s Constitutional Bench last month did not just call for the restoration of the House and Deuba be made prime minister but directly blamed President Bidya Devi Bhandari for complicity with Oli.

Youth affiliated with the CPN-UML staged protests outside the Supreme Court against its verdict that guaranteed Sher Bahadur Deuba his fifth prime ministership.

The final verdict of the court marks the culmination of a prolonged power struggle between Oli and comrades within the UML and his former NCP that has lasted more than two years, and undermined one of the most powerful elected governments in Nepal’s democratic history.

The NCP had nearly two-thirds majority in the House, but it was hobbled by a power struggle and ego-clash between Oli and the Dahal-Nepal combine. Governance was paralysed by uncertainty even as Nepal struggled with two deadly waves of the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdowns that has seriously damaged the economy.

President Bidya Devi Bhandari’s rejection of Deuba’s claim to lead the government two months ago had prompted 146 politicians from a five-party alliance to file writ petitions in the Supreme Court on 24 May. After dissolving the House following loss in a confidence vote on 21 May, Oli still staked his claim to form a government, showing he had support of all the members of the UML and JSP – even those who had voted with Deuba.

President Bhandari used this to cast doubt on the legitimacy of both claims to form the government because they had counted the same MPs.

On Tuesday, Sher Bahadur Deuba will become Nepal’s prime minister for the fifth time in 20 years. He has led the country through the reign of King Birendra, after King Gyanendra’s coup in 2005, as well as in interim governments after the peace accord in 2006.

Deuba will have to prove that he has the confidence of the House within one month, after which he will head an election government. If he fails to get a majority, which is a possibility, there will be early polls in November – which was what Oli was preparing for.

Like Deuba, other leaders of the anti-Oli alliance have also been prime ministers before: Pushpa Kamal Dahal (twice), Madhav Kumar Nepal, Jhalnath Khanal and Baburam Bhattarai.