The human cost of Nepal’s political deadlock

When the coalition government of Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba took office in July, many had hoped it would restore stability after a prolonged political feud. But the alliance has not even been able to complete government formation, nor pass the budget and important legislation on stricter punishment for gender-based violence.

Turmoil in Parliament this week, including physical confrontations between members that had to be controlled by marshals, has also meant the budget has not budged, and this has led to a government shutdown from Wednesday — affecting hospital care during the pandemic.

Continued opposition by the main opposition UML has meant that besides the budget, critical pieces of ordinance, including one to increase punishment for rape and acid attacks against women have lapsed.

“This has bolstered the morale of criminals because it will protect them from punishment,” says Tika Dahal of the Nepal Organisation of Handicapped Women.

“It is a crime to threaten victims or buy them off, and the inability to pass these ordinances will mean that fewer women will come forward to lodge complaints,” she adds. There has been a significant increase in the number of reported rape cases during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The ordinances had in the past months brought down the number of rape cases where the perpetrator’s family tried to negotiate a settlement with the victim through intimidation or out-of-court offers of compensation, including getting the rapist to marry the victim.

The other ordinance to prevent acid and other corrosive chemical attacks has also lapsed. Activist Ujjwal Bikram Thapa who has been helping women victims of acid attacks and lobbying for the legislation says it is a “national shame” that such an important bill has been allowed to lapse.

“Preventing acid attacks on women is not a political issue, it was not for or against any political party,” Thapa said. “If the government cannot act on such a sensitive issue, we as a nation have lost our humanity.”

The law would have increased the punishment to perpetrators of acid attacks to 20 years jail terms, and Rs1 million in fines. If the victim died, the acid assaulter would have to pay compensation to the family. These laws are now not in effect anymore.

Nepal’s Constitution mandates that a law or amendment brought by ordinance must be ratified by Parliament within 60 days of being presented to the House, otherwise it is automatically scrapped. The ordinances had been passed on 18 July and expired on Wednesday.

“We had actually started seeing a drop in attempts to reach settlements in which the rape accused used power, muscle and money to avoid punishment,” says gender rights activist Sangita Timsina.

Menuka Thapa of the group Rakshya Nepal says that after the ordinance stipulating a three-year jail term for those attempting to settle rapes cases out of court, she had seen a drop in such negotiations.

Last year, when a 16-year-old was raped by multiple men in Saptari, local elders offered the victim’s family Rs55,000 if they forgave the perpetrator. When the family took a stand saying it wanted justice, not money, influential men in the village threatened them from filing a police case. The young woman committed suicide.

But because the ordinance against out-of-court settlement had been passed, the perpetrators Dharma Mandal, Bishnu Mandal, Ranjit Mandal and Ballu Mandal as well as three elders trying to save them from punishment were detained by police.

Similarly, at the other end of the country in Bajhang, a 12-year-old Dalit girl was murdered after rape. The alleged rapist Rajendra Bohra had last year been released from jail after this family paid a mere Rs500 to settle an earlier rape case. If the amendment had been in place, the second crime would not have happened.

After a series of such rape settlement cases, the government of Prime Minister K P Oli had President Bidya Devi Bhandari sign an ordinance in November last year to amend the laws on rape and other crimes against women.

Pressure to settle rape cases by offering money or threats against the victims or their families would be punishable by up to three years in prison and Rs30,000 fine. In fact, the amendment added another 6 months in jail if the one pressuring the victim is an elected official.

The parliamentary stalemate has also affected the budget, and from the first of the Nepali month of Ashwin on Friday, the government cannot spend any money which could lead to a shutdown similar to the one that the United States experienced last year after a filibuster in Congress when Donald Trump was president.

But while the US has seen such crises before, this is the first time Nepal has had a government shutdown because the House deadlock has meant that the government’s budget ordinance has lapsed.

The reason for this state of affairs is that Prime Minister Deuba suspended Parliament when it looked like he could not pass an amendment to the Constitution allowing political parties to split with signatures of just 20% of their parliamentary parties.

This was to facilitate Madhav Kumar Nepal to split from the UML to form the CPN (United Socialist) so that he could join the coalition government. K P Oli and the UML is also using his obstruction of the House to exact revenge on the coalition that ousted him.

Five-time prime minister Sher Bahadur Deuba does not seem too perturbed. When asked by reporters this week how the government would function without a budget, he replied: “As it has functioned in the past.”

Parmeswar Dhungana of the Finance Ministry says the first option is to have Parliament when it meets Monday to ratify the ordinance to split parties, that will unblock the other ordinances. The second option is to pass an emergency payment bill, but even for that the political deadlock between the coalition and the UML in both chambers of the House must end.

The third option is to suspend Parliament again and pass and renew all pending bills, amendments and the budget by ordinance.

This has happened before. Exactly ten years ago when then UML Finance Minister Surendra Pandey tried to present the budget, the current Maoist Finance Minister Janardan Sharma led a charge on the floor of the House and broke Pandey’s red-ribboned budget briefcase. After that, the UML coalition passed the budget by ordinance.

The other collateral damage of the deadlock in Parliament is the US-supported Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) project to increase the capacity of Nepal’s electricity transmission lines and improve highways. The project is already signed but needs to be ratified by Parliament in 2019, but has also been a victim of extreme politics.

  • Most read