CALL ON THE PRESIDENT: Be Prompt and Decisive

MURARI SHARMA

Nepal is in a mess. President Ram Baran Yadav is in a bind. Political parties have made a mockery of his deadline for consensus and put his prestige on the line. He must rescue the country and his prestige from this mess.

The failure of political parties and government has created and prolonged this mess. The parties let the Constituent Assembly (CA) die without delivering a new constitution. Maoist Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai announced fresh elections for November 2012 but failed to hold them. He has rescheduled the polls again for April this year. But he cannot hold the vote without amending the constitution. The constitution cannot be amended without legislature or political consensus, none of which exists now.

To put pressure for consensus, the President issued a deadline and extended it seven times. But the parties are squabbling over premiership. The opposition parties want to replace Prime Minister Bhattarai with one of their leaders citing the five-point agreement, which provides for a Nepali Congress-led government to conduct the polls under the new constitution. His shifting positions aside, Bhattarai wants the opposition parties to join his government, because the new constitution did not materialize.

Both postures look plausible if you overlook the history behind it. Bhattarai had rejected UML leader Madhav Nepal as prime minister from day one, and his party had refused to join the Nepal government. A self-proclaimed tit-for-tat person, Bhattarai should naturally expect other parties to reciprocate. Moreover, the opposition parties argue, rather validly, that Bhattarai has lost legitimacy after he failed to organize the elections on schedule.


PHOTO: KESHAB THOKER

So the impasse continues to hold the country hostage, derailing the constitutional order and frustrating the people. Pressure, therefore, has built up on the President to take further measures to remove the impasse. To formulate a prudent roadmap for his action, the President must put things in perspective.

As head of the government from the largest party in the dissolved CA, Bhattarai was more responsible for creating the mess and has more obligation, power and resources to resolve it than the opposition parties have. A highly educated person, Bhattarai must understand this. But two things have blinded him from seeing it: His lust for power and his party’s fear to go into the election so soon after its vertical split.

For public consumption, Bhattarai had said he would clear the deck for a consensus candidate. When such a candidate began to emerge, he backed out of his pledge and said he would step down for an independent candidate. I am sure, when the parties rally around such a candidate, Bhattarai will shift the goal post again. It is in Bhattarai’s character. He is too much of an opinionated ideologue to compromise and sacrifice for the greater good.

I had written in September 2010, well before he became prime minister, that Bhattarai was incapable of providing consensual leadership. A prime minister is a consensual leader who must, among other things, negotiate and compromise to balance competing interests. Harri Holkeri, the former Finnish prime minister and successful UN diplomat, says, “If you come to a negotiation table saying you have the final truth, that you know nothing but the truth and that is final, you will get nothing.”

Nonetheless, Bhattarai got everything, not because he was a prime ministerial material but because he was right for nimitta nayak, a circumstantial hero. India opposed Prachanda for his anti-Indian stance. The opposition parties propped up Bhattarai to drive a wedge between him and Prachanda to weaken the latter. However, the nimitta nayak turned out to be more strategic and cunning than the opposition parties had thought. He has tackled three sources of threat to his power dexterously, and is trying to checkmate the fourth.

Bhattarai will keep shifting goal posts. It is in his character. He is too much of an opinionated ideologue to compromise and sacrifice for the greater good.

Bhattarai won India’s favor by signing the BIPPA and extradition treaty, by agreeing to hand over Nepal’s airports, and by not raising the prickly border and 1950 treaty issues. No other Nepali prime minister since 1951 has surpassed his loyalty to New Delhi. Consequently, India has prevented the key coalition partners from abandoning Bhattarai. Bhattarai blunted Prachanda’s threat by strengthening his own faction in the party and frightening his party boss by setting his supporters against him. Prachanda cannot pull the plug on him without risking a split in the party. Bhattarai has conveniently disregarded the opposition parties, for they lack clout to shake his power.

Bhattarai is trying to checkmate the President, the fourth source of threat. For this, Bhattarai and his advisors have generated false rumors about bogey of presidential activism and threatened the President with dire consequences if he removed the government. His supporters have filed a case with the Supreme Court, challenging the President’s authority to issue a deadline for consensus.

However, President Yadav, as the guardian of the constitution, has moral and constitutional obligation to bring the country back on constitutional track. Accordingly, he has started consultations, after his visit to India, which told him that Nepal should find its own solution. The President needs to act promptly and decisively. As he ponders his next move, here are some options he may wish to consider.

Consensus

The President can continue extending the deadline until Bhattarai quits out of shame, or until Prachanda pulls out the rug from under his feet. This option will maintain the status quo, undermine the President’s deadline and status, and fail to restore the broken constitutional order anytime soon. If Bhattarai agrees to bow out in favour of an independent prime minister, that could be a way out. But I doubt that Bhattarai would do so.

CA restoration

Suo motu or at the government’s request, the President can seek advice of the Supreme Court to restore the dissolved CA for a short period with a built-in dissolution mechanism. A restored CA can amend the Interim Constitution to make room for new elections, approve constitutional appointments, and change the government if necessary, in that order. In this case, two-third majority in the CA can amend the constitution, and a majority government can conduct the polls. I prefer this solution, as it will be constitutionally most appropriate.

No-Confidence

If the opposition parties formally write to the President informing him that the prime minister has lost the support of majority members in the dissolved CA, the President can ask Bhattarai to prove the majority’s support in so many days or quit. If Bhattarai proves his majority, he stays. Otherwise, he leaves on his own or the President dismisses him and appoints a new government to hold the election.

Popular mandate

If civil society collects and submits hundreds of thousands of signatures asking the President to take all appropriate measures to rescue the country from the current political impasse and organize the vote within next several months, the President can take a decisive step based on such a popular mandate.

Presidential activism

If none of the above options materializes, the President can give Bhattarai a final deadline for consensus with the proviso that his government will cease to exist once the deadline has elapsed. If there is no consensus, the President can appoint a new government headed by himself, by an independent person, or by another political leader. His job will be much easier if the Supreme Court says, in the case filed by Dilli Guragain and Laxmi Subedi challenging the President’s authority to issue a deadline, the head of state has the authority to issue the deadline and take other appropriate actions to restore constitutional order.

Whichever option President Ram Baran Yadav chooses, he should act promptly and decisively to free himself and the country from the constitutional and political mess. He should be aware that Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai would not make his path easy

Published on 2013-01-13 01:15:17
Published in Republica of 13 January 2013.
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