Chief Justice suspension linked to MCC ratification

After a prolonged deadlock over Parliament’s ratification of a $500 million US-backed infrastructure project, Nepal’s ruling parties have found a formula to keep their coalition intact, and approve the scheme.

The controversial project was threatening to break up the five-party coalition because Prime Minister Deuba’s Nepali Congress (NC) was for it, while the Maoist Centre and the CPN Unified Socialists were against it.

The row had become embroiled in geopolitics with both Washington and Beijing piling on pressure on politicians in Kathmandu to ratify and scrap it. US Assistant Secretary of State Donald Lu had called Nepal's top leaders last week to warn of damage to relations if the compact was not ratified by the 28 February deadline.

The MCC row was also complicating Nepal’s domestic politics as the country faces local elections in May, with the Maoists and Unified Socialists wary of facing the ballot without an electoral alliance.

On Sunday, 98 MPs belonging to the coalition filed an impeachment motion against Chief Justice Cholendra Shumsher Rana, who has himself been caught up in a months-long standoff with Nepal’s lawyers over allegations of corruption and political interference.

The Nepal Bar Association had been lobbying with coalition leaders to file an impeachment motion against Rana since November, but the politicians had been reluctant to do so. Rana was said to have the support of Prime Minister Deuba.

Rana is automatically in suspension now, but he is unlikely to be impeached because that would need a two-thirds majority of the House that the coalition does not command.

Rana was to adjudicate two pending writ petitions involving Parliament Speaker Agni Sapkota of the Maoists on a war crimes charge, and on the suspension of 14 MPs that defected to the CPN Unified Socialists and whose the UML expelled.

Rana was expected to rule against the Communist parties, while his successor, acting Chief Justice Deepak Karki is said to be more favourable to them.

In a convoluted political way, suspending Rana opens the door to appease the Maoists and the Unified Socialists to allow the MCC project to be ratified when Parliament’s often postponed session sits on Wednesday.

This is a win-win formula for the ruling coalition: Prime Minister Deuba gets to ratify the MCC, the Maoists save their Speaker, and Unified Socialists get to keep their 14 MPs. In addition Rana could have also ruled against former ministers who are now in the Unified Socialists in another case involving the Baluwatar real estate scam.

However, the deal also exposes just how seriously the rule of law and separation of powers have become eroded in Nepal, where political parties can use or discard Supreme Court justices to suit their interests.

Even though the opposition UML was removed from power last year by Rana who annulled Prime Minister K P Oli’s dissolution of the House, it has been critical of the impeachment motion against him.

The UML was hoping to break the coalition over its internal disagreement over the MCC, and gain an electoral advantage. It expected Rana to rule against Speaker Sapkota in a Supreme Court case to convict him for the killing of a UML supporter during the conflict. The UML was also hoping that Rana would expel the 14 UML rebels from House membership.

The UML’s Subhas Nembang on Sunday criticised the impeachment motion as having been executed “guerrilla-style”, and its central secretariat held an emergency meeting on Sunday evening to plot future strategy.

Despite the formula to save the coalition, Maoists and Unified Socialists have taken such a strong stance against the MCC that they will find it difficult to support it now when the House sits on Wednesday.

They may stay away, leaving the NC and UML to pass it so they can brandish their own nationalist credentials for having stood up against American 'imperialism' at election time.

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