No Speaker, no Parliament in Nepal

Illustration: Diwakar Chhetri

An ongoing impasse over the Speaker at the House of Representatives has once more brought to the fore the power struggle within the ruling Nepal Community Party between an ailing prime minister and a prime minister-in-waiting. And in this battle of the alpha males of Nepali politics, it is the appointment of women in decision-making positions that is the casualty.

The post of the Speaker has been vacant since the former speaker Krishna Bahadur Mahara was arrested on charges of rape of a parliamentary colleague in September. Nepal's Constitution requires that the Speaker and deputy must be of different parties and different genders.

Read also: Crushers of justice, Editorial

Current deputy speaker Shivamaya Tumbahangphe is from the former UML component of the ruling party NCP which wants her to resign so that it can make a political appointment. Women's rights activists and politicians have termed this discriminatory. But the feisty Tumbahangphe, who is the only woman politician in Nepal with a PhD,  has refused to resign until now.

There has been tremendous support for her also on social media. But parliament's winter session has been postponed again and again -- the last time in 12 January even though there was no need to do so.

"Our laws clearly state that the deputy speaker can conduct the parliament session in the absence of the speaker," says Rojnath Pandey, spokesperson of the parliament secretariat. "The parliament sessions have been postponed due to undisclosed reasons, at the deputy speaker's discretion."

Tumbahangphe is scheduled to begin the process of Speaker election at the next session, which NCP cannot contest as long as she is the deputy. Speculation is rife that the NCP is pressurising her not to call the Parliament session on Wednesday until she herself resigns and clears the way for NCP to contest. Speakers and deputy speakers are supposed to resign from their political parties so that they can lead the parliament impartially, but currently the parliament is caught in a deadlock on the whims of the ruling party.

"It appears that an invisible hand is directing acts of national importance, which reflects badly on our political system," says political analyst Bipin Adhikari. "NCP has no legal or moral authority to ask Tumbahangphe to resign or to stall parliament proceedings, since she no longer belongs to the party. If Tumbahangphe is forced to bow down to party pressure, it would imply that only party loyalists can become speakers, and the impartiality of the position would degenerate in future."

Tumbahangphe herself has echoed that argument, and told reporters she is now an impartial official of the House of Representatives, and is accountable to the House rather than to her political party.

"I have sworn an oath to lead the House of Representatives, and I will not leave it headless by resigning. Why should I be sacrificed because Mahara committed a mistake?" she asks.

Many say that she is being asked to do so because she is a woman. NCP has advocated for gender equality in the past and even includes it prominently in its party manifesto. But it is often accused of not staying true to its words and not letting women leaders grow.

"This is political violence, caused by a culture of patriarchy and egoism in politics," says Renu Adhikari, a women's rights activist. "This is breeding dissatisfaction among junior women leaders, and top leaders should beware. It is high time they realised that it is not so easy to push women around."

Several women's rights activists and organisations have spoken out in support of Tumbahangphe and protested NCP's shabby treatment of her. NCP, meanwhile, seems unaware of the gender angle, as it focuses on bagging the position of the Speaker.

NCP spokesperson Narayan Kaji Shrestha scoffed at the idea that the incident could be offensive to women. "Says who? They should read the Constitution," said Shrestha, in an interview with Nepali Times. "The Speaker's post should belong to NCP by rights, since we have the majority in the parliament. We are confident that Tumbahangphe will realise her duty to the party and tender her resignation soon. If she does not resign, we cannot elect anyone, including her."

Tumbahangphe is adamant that she will only resign if the parties announce their candidate, and has time and again claimed that she is qualified to contest. Meanwhile, those in the know say that Tumbahangphe doesn't stand a chance as NCP is sure to nominate someone close to one of the co-chairs KP Oli and Prachanda. And that, to many, is a bigger injustice than a violation of women's rights. 

Tumbahangphe is a highly qualified candidate by all standards, maybe even over qualified for Nepali politics. Active in politics for more than 40 years, Tumbahangphe also has a PhD in women's role in Nepal's politics. Not just women's rights activists, but ordinary men and women are asking why such a qualified person who has already proved her competence as deputy speaker is being sidelined.

"It is not just a matter of women's rights, but one of social justice," says Binda Pande, an NCP leader who has often used a feminist lens to critique the party's policies. "Tumbahangphe is a qualified, competent, and experienced leader, and her claim to the position of the Speaker is justified on those counts. Pushing for her candidacy on the basis of her gender would be an injustice to other things she brings to the table."

Tumbahangphe also has stated that she is claiming the candidacy not because she is a woman, but because she is competent. Tumbahangphe represents a small minority of women who are so qualified that they can afford to rule gender out of the equation.

No one, not even Tumbahangphe herself, is saying she should become Speaker because she is a woman.  The question is not if a woman should get the job, but if her gender is preventing her from getting it. 

However, an objective look would show that gender inequality is still an issue in Nepal's politics: in the 30-year practice of multi-party democracy in Nepal, a woman has led Parliament for only three years (Onsari Gharti 2015-2018).

Even though the Maoist party entered the mainstream politics with a large number of women, many of them have fallen by the wayside and today senior leaders of NCP are mostly male. Though the constitution mandates that the head and deputy head of all local levels must be of different genders, parties have mostly fielded women for deputy positions and few are in leading positions.

Women, though equally qualified, experienced, and dedicated as men, continue to fight for equal acceptance by their parties. Even though the current impasse seems like an individual stand for justice against a powerful establishment, it is symbolic of the culture of patriarchy in Nepal's politics that undermines women. How the Speaker dispute is resolved by the ruling party will, whether Tumbahangphe is retained or not, represent a milestone in Nepali politics.