President Bidya Devi Bhandari failed to authenticate an amendment bill to Nepal’s Citizenship Act by deadline on Tuesday 20 September, rendering it null and void. The bill had passed back and forth between Parliament and President’s office, before its rejection by a ceremonial head of state. It is seen by most experts as an unconstitutional move, and retaliation for Parliament’s refusal to deliberate her 15-point request for review.
It is also proof of the deep polarisation ahead of elections between President Bhandari, who is close to the opposition UML, and the government. Passage of the bill would have been popular with the Tarai vote bank for the 5-party governing coalition, while the UML will hope to cash in on the opposition to the bill among many voters in the mountains.
Understandably, coalition members were unified in their denouncement of the President allowing the bill to lapse after Parliament was already dissolved ahead of elections.
‘This unconstitutional move by the President is a gross insult to Nepal’s federal Parliament elected by the people,’ reads a statement co-signed by leaders of four parties in government. The fifth coalition partner, Rastriya Janamorcha, did not sign, with its chief Chitra Bahadur KC casting strong reservations.
In an unprecedented move, the Maoist-appointed Vice-president Nanda Bahadur Pun also condemned President Bhandari’s failure to certify the amendment. Interestingly, Maoist leader Narayankaji Shrestha wanted to have it both ways, tweeting: ‘The president does not have the right to go against the Constitution, but we agree with a lot of the points she has raised about the bill.’
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The amendment would have allowed hundreds of thousands of Nepalis, especially in the Tarai, to finally obtain citizenship papers. But many activists had said the bill’s restrictions on citizenship for children born to single mothers, and the process of obtaining naturalised citizenship were discriminatory towards women.
Former Law Minister Nilambar Acharya said that the Citizenship Bill was too sensitive and nuanced for knee-jerk, one-sided reaction.
“The fact is that the House of Representatives passed the amendment bill without deliberating the President’s 15-point request for clarification,” Acharya said. “And should a Parliament that is about to reach its term take decisions on issues of long-term national interest? The new Parliament should have been entrusted with that.”
Indeed, the bill has already become an election issue. Student wings affiliated with coalition parties took to the streets in protest (pictured) burning effigies of the President, while unions affiliated with the UML rallied with placards that read ‘salute to the President who stands up for the nation and nationalism’.
With citizenship becoming a battle for populist vote-gathering, the row has over-shadowed moves by the governing coalition which also went against constitutional values. The closed list of proportional representation (PR) candidates presented Monday included the Prime Minister’s wife, Arzoo Deuba, former NC minister Bimalendra Nidhi and Maoist former speaker Krishna Bahadur Mahara.
The PR system is actually meant to ensure that communities on the socio-political fringes get represented in decision-making. But the candidates on the list have perpetuated the status quoist, transactional, and nepotistic nature of Nepali politics.
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