political commentary | President election | head of state | constitution | politics | power sharing
Why has the presidential role become so important and contentious?
With the second tenure of the president Bidya Devi Bhandari coming to an end this March, two names have finally emerged for the new head of state after much political tussle over the last few months. Whoever is elected out of the two, one thing is sure — they will again come from a rich political background and perhaps strong party interest for a post that is supposed to be ceremonial.
What is supposed to be a ceremonial role without executive authority, and a guardian of the constitution — the presidential position has now become a bone of contention — mostly seen as a means for maintaining party domination over the anticipated fluid politics.
As the second term of president Bidya Devi Bhandari ends this March, Nepal is expected to get its new president on March 9. Two names have finally emerged for the next head of state after months of the political tussle — Ram Chandra Poudel from Nepali Congress and Subhash Nembang from CPN (UML) — where the political bigwigs were heavily invested in getting their party candidates elected at almost any cost rather than setting a precedent with electing a non-partisan candidate that all citizens can respectfully look up to.
So why has this role become so important and also contentious? We need to go back to recent history.
For the past 15 years, Nepal’s head of state position has seated two civilians — Dr Ram Baran Yadav and Bidya Devi Bhandari — since Nepal became a federal republic in 2008. Both were, however, politically active actors until their appointment.
In 2008, Dr Ram Baran Yadav became the first president of the Republic of Nepal soon after the country transformed into a Federal Democratic Republic state, ousting the 240-year-old monarchy.
During his presidency, Yadav called the sacking of the army chief Rookmangad Katwal on May 9, 2009 by PM Pushpa Kamal Dahal unconstitutional and blocked his decision which led Dahal to resign the next day after heading the government for nine months — a turning point for the rising Maoist power then. Dahal called the decision an exercise of parallel power.
Dr Yadav also promulgated the current constitution of Nepal amidst many difficulties, pressure and competing expectations on Sep 20, 2015.
The two politically significant events set the record straight that while the presidential role is expected to be ceremonial, they can be influential in dire circumstances.
In the coming days, Bidya Devi Bhandari, the second president of Nepal elected in 2015, the first female to become the head of the state, and the 26th woman president around the world, remained in more controversy during her two-term tenure than her predecessor. Her decisions prompted the questioning of the limitation and power vested upon the position — also making the role an appealing position for the political parties to have their control at.
In October 2017, Sher Bahadur Deuba government recommended an ordinance on Medical Education, which she didn’t endorse for over two weeks. It was finally issued when Dr Govinda KC, including some members of civil society, registered an application at the President’s Office asking about the status of the ordinance.
On Feb 9, 2018, Bidya Devi Bhandari deferred the nomination of three proposed names — Gopi Lal Basnet, Chandani Joshi and Krishna Prasad Poudel — to the National Assembly recommended by the outgoing Deuba government. But she immediately approved the nominations sent in by the incoming Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli which included the names of Bimala Rai Poudyal, Yubaraj Khatiwada and Ram Narayan Bidari.
Most of her decisions have been accused of favouring the interests of her former party CPN-UML than guided constitutionally and forging collusion with the party chief and former prime minister KP Sharma Oli.
Bhandari twice approved the Oli-led government decision to dissolve the House of Representatives — first on December 20, 2020 which was overturned by the Supreme court on Feb 23, 2021 ruling it unconstitutional.
A few weeks later, she again approved the dissolution of the HoR which was once again challenged at the Supreme Court and again ruled unconstitutional.
Earlier, President Bhandari approved the Oli government’s ordinance on citizenship immediately although it had been languishing in the parliament for around four years seeking breakthroughs over some content of the bill. The ordinance was later nullified by the Supreme Court, ruling it as a parliamentary prerogative.
Later, Bhandari refused to enact the Bill to amend the Nepal Citizenship Act, 2063 which was passed by both houses of the parliament, which many saw as a breach of the constitution. Before that, the president had returned the bill to the parliament with a 15-point recommendation, although this time based on the constitutional provision.
Yadav and Bhandari served under two different constitutions—the interim constitution of 2007 and the existing constitution respectively, which had no significant difference in the powers vested to the role—both imagined to be ‘ceremonial’. Yet, Nepal saw two heads of state who had their own ways to deal with the situation.
Now political parties want their own seated at the ‘throne’, not because they could safeguard the constitution, but because parties could leverage the position to serve their party interest. Past precedents have shown that.
Who heads the highest office has also become more crucial than ever now because the current political scenario is fluid as ever, perhaps more.
The new parliament is hung with no clear majority, and recent experiences for power sharing (both pre and post-general election) have created great animosity among major party leaders. Chances are high that political disputes will continue to erupt across both provincial and federal levels, already evident in the last three months’ post-general election that concluded in November 2022 where alliances shifted dramatically back and forth — mainly negotiated for who heads the executive branch and the head of the state.
In all that, the Prachanda-led government was still unable to fully expand his cabinet due to the struggle in balancing the power equation despite securing a half-tenure position for himself in coalition with the CPN (UML) in exchange for the presidential position to the CPN (UML). Whereas many existing cabinet members (ministers) have already pulled out of the government by now (case in hand CPN (UML), RaSwaPa and RaPraPa) pushing the PM to take another round of vote of confidence in just two months.
Add to that, the president is most likely to remain in office for their full five-year tenure, one that the executive head is less likely to. For instance, Yadav saw seven governments during his presidency while Bhandari saw six governments during her tenure.
All this fluidity and struggle for power makes the case for the political parties to have a favourable president who can be manoeuvred depending on the political needs of the time.
What else is at stake?
Apart from the power vested in the president, the presidential position is also a lucrative one for individual party members vying for it. As the head of the state, the President is given the highest security, enjoys state visits, and will enjoy a luxurious life in contrast to the debilitating economic condition of the country. Let’s not forget a monthly salary of about Rs 170,000, which was proposed to be increased to Rs 250,000 by a report on Salary, Facilities of Special Officers-2079 submitted to the government in 2022.
Whoever is elected out of the two, one thing is sure — they will again come from a rich political background and perhaps strong party interest for a post that is supposed to be ceremonial. Will they be able to remain non-partisan and abide by the constitution or carry the legacy of their predecessors is a crucial question for all of us.
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