Questions arise once again over Nepal president’s role in the ruling party

Early Tuesday morning, hours before the scheduled Standing Committee meeting of the ruling Nepal Communist Party, Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli held a hasty meeting with President Bidya Devi Bhandari

Jul 03, 2020

Early Tuesday morning, hours before the scheduled Standing Committee meeting of the ruling Nepal Communist Party, Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli held a hasty meeting with President Bidya Devi Bhandari. Oli then went off to the Standing Committee meeting where a majority of the party’s senior leadership called for him to resign as both prime minister and party chair. Oli returned to Sheetal Niwas for yet another meeting with Bhandari that same evening.

Again, on Thursday, Oli met with Bhandari for an hour before a crucial Cabinet meeting. After his return, the Cabinet decided to recommend that the President prorogue the budget session of the federal parliament. The president approved the recommendation almost immediately.

These interlocutions between the executive head of government and the ceremonial head of state have led many to question the role that Bhandari plays in the internal dynamics of the ruling party, and by extension, the government.

As the head of state, Bhandari’s is a non-partisan position where the President acts as “guardian” of the constitution. But Bhandari was also an influential member of the UML, Oli’s former party, and still appears to exercise undue influence over Nepal Communist Party matters.

Political experts say that it seems Bhandari knows about all developments within the Nepal Communist Party (NCP) and the government beforehand.

“The way she is endorsing the government’s recommendations shows that the head of state and the executive head have had discussions beforehand,” Rajendra Maharjan, a political commentator, told the Post. “It seems she hasn’t gotten over her hangover from when she was a vice-chair of the CPN-UML.”

Constitutional experts say that the President must be able to maintain neutrality.
The presidential role is to work as per the government’s decision, but it’s not that she cannot question the prime minister or the rationale behind the recommendations made by the government, they say.

Thursday’s move of House prorogation recommendation and its swift approval also have been described by some experts as an “an action well choreographed”.

Purna Man Shakya, professor at Nepal Law Campus, said before ending the ongoing House session, Bhandari could have asked Oli if he had consulted with the Speaker and the parliamentary Business Advisory Committee.

“She could have advised consent from all concerned parties before ending the session,” said Shakya.

This, however, is not the first time Bhandari has acted swiftly on the recommendation of the Oli administration.

On April 20, when Oli made a surprise move of introducing two ordinances, one related to provisions of splitting a party and registering a new one, it was apparent that the ordinances were problematic. But the President’s Office spent no time in endorsing them.

After fierce criticism, the Oli government decided to withdraw those ordinances. The President toed the line, without once questioning why they were being withdrawn within five days of introduction.
Bhandari’s role has been questioned in the past as well, for trying to play mediator whenever there was a crisis in the Nepal Commuist Party.

In November last year, party chairs Oli and Pushpa Kamal Dahal came to a power-sharing agreement during a meeting with Bhandari. It was decided then that Oli would run the government for the full five-year term while Dahal would play a bigger role in the party as executive chair.

Though the deal didn’t last long, as Oli just a week later said that he was the senior party chair, it did de-escalate the factional dispute, at least for some time. But according to Surya Dhungel, former adviser to former president Ram Baran Yadav, some of Bhandari’s actions have overstepped her mandate and have raised questions over her neutrality.

“She overstepped in resolving the ruling party’s dispute a few months back and her role in issuing ordinances was also questionable,” said Dhungel.

The Oli government on April 20 had issued two controversial ordinances that were swiftly passed by the Office of the President in a well-choreographed move where President Bhandari’s approval arrived in the middle of a party Secretariat meeting called to discuss the ordinances. Bhandari was forced to repeal them within five days, following much criticism.

“Her act to promulgate the ordinances within a few hours after the Cabinet's recommendation raised eyebrows,” Dhungel told the Post. “It is unfortunate that questions are being raised over the president's neutrality. Bhandari must be mindful of the public perception.”

As guardian of the constitution, Bhandari’s role must be non-partisan and in the interest of the entire nation, say experts. If the President acts solely at the behest of the executive, no matter what decision it takes, a significant constitutional check will be in peril, they say.
“I like this rubber-stamp president of ours. Acts fast, too. Takes no time to grant whatever request the PM submits,” Devendra Raj Pandey, a former minister and civil society leader, said on Twitter. “Only problem: the office is costing us a lot of money to maintain, among others, a large secretariat that apparently has no role to play in the Presidential decisions.”

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