Speaker under scrutiny as much rests with him to keep the House in orderParliament is set to turn into a battleground and Agni Sapkota must demonstrate tactical acumen to maintain the dignity of the chair he holds, observers say.
The first meeting of the House of Representatives on March 7 after the Supreme Court ordered its reinstatement on February 23 saw sloganeering and obstructions. The government could not present the ordinances, as many as eight, before the House due to obstructions from the opposition parties—the Nepali Congress and the Janata Samajbadi Party. Speaker Agni Sapkota adjourned the House meeting until March 10 (Wednesday).
On Wednesday, the House meeting convened but it ended after passing a condolence motion on the deaths of two lawmakers from the present Parliament and 12 from the past.
The meeting has been rescheduled for Tuesday.
Speaker Sapkota, however, did not call the meeting of the Business Advisory Committee, neither on Sunday nor on Wednesday. The committee meeting is called just before the House meeting to discuss its agenda and sort out the differences among the parties, if there are any.
Hours before Sunday’s House meeting, the Supreme Court scrapped the Nepal Communist Party (NCP) and revived the CPN-UML and the Maoist Centre.
The court decision has completely changed the country’s political landscape and the House is set to see tussles between political parties.
Analysts say Speaker Sapkota’s role in such times will be crucial to keep the House in order. But as morning shows the day, according to them, Sapkota’s reluctance to call even a meeting of the Business Advisory Committee has raised concerns. According to them, the committee and all-party meetings, if necessary, are strong tools for the Speaker to narrow down differences among the parties.
The committee, which generally has a law minister, chief whips and whips, basically has a responsibility to finalise the daily agenda for the House and find a middle path if the parties have any differences.
However, Sapkota hasn’t felt it necessary.
Shreekrishna Aniruddh Gautam, a political commentator, said it was known that the first meeting wouldn’t be pleasant, but the Speaker wasn’t seen playing a proactive role.
“Sapkota had ample time to hold a series of meetings to ensure a smooth meeting,” Gautam told the Post. “He failed to demonstrate the skills a House Speaker needs to.”
When it comes to running the House, Sapkota does not have much experience. He was elected Speaker in the third week of January last year after a weeks-long tug-of-war between KP Sharma Oli and Pushpa Kamal Dahal, chairs of then Nepal Communist Party (NCP). Sapkota’s election was seen as a victory for Dahal. A long-time Maoist leader, Sapkota had been a close ally of Dahal during the “people’s war”.
However, Oli suddenly prorogued the House on July 2. Between the third week of January and July 2, Sapkota did not get a chance to preside over even 10 meetings.
But Sapkota’s performance has come into question not because of his lack of experience but because of his failure to work as a non-partisan leader.
When Oli dissolved the House, Sapkota did not hide his allegiance to the faction led by Dahal and Madhav Kumar Nepal then. It was apparent that he was siding with Dahal, his long-time master.
He was quick to criticise the House dissolution saying it was unconstitutional.
“Article 76 of the Constitution of Nepal has a clear provision that the House of Representatives cannot be dissolved as long as there is the possibility of forming a government,” said Sapkota in a statement on December 23, three days after the dissolution. “Once again, there is the need for high-level understanding among the political parties to protect the constitution.”
That move was unprecedented.
Sapkota, as the head of the legislature, had gone into direct confrontation with the head of the executive.
There were even talks about Sapkota “calling a House meeting” even as Oli’s House dissolution move was being tested by the Supreme Court for its constitutionality.
Experts on parliamentary affairs and former Speakers say it was wrong on the part of Sapkota to issue a statement on a decision by the executive, constitutionality of which was subject to test by the court of law. It was against the norm to take a position by the Speaker who holds a non-partisan office, according to them.
Oli’s House dissolution move was the first after the country adopted the new constitution in 2015. The Supreme Court now has already termed his move unconstitutional. In the past, between 1994 and 2002, four prime ministers had attempted to dissolve the lower house under the 1990 constitution.
But on no occasion did the House Speaker issue a statement, taking any position.
Two attempts were upheld while two were overturned by the court.
Taranath Ranabhat, who was Speaker when then prime minister Manmohan Adhikari in 1995 dissolved the lower house, said there was no need for him to take a position—for or against a decision taken by the head of the executive.
Ranabhat was elected the House Speaker from the Nepali Congress while Adhikari was prime minister from the CPN-UML.
“No matter what party one belongs to, once elected to the post of Speaker, he or she must maintain neutrality,” Ranabhat told the Post. “Sapkota failed to maintain the dignity of the chair by taking a position. The Speaker has to be neutral and this should be demonstrated in his or her activities.”
Sapkota also became the first Speaker to challenge the heads of the state, the executive and the judiciary in the court of law.
On February 5, Sapkota filed a writ petition against Prime Minister Oli, Chief Justice Cholendra Shumsher Rana and the Office of the President over appointments to the constitutional bodies as per a December 15 Constitutional Council meeting.
The council is chaired by Oli and Chief Justice Rana is a member. Sapkota himself is a member of the council. He had filed the writ petition saying he was not informed about the meeting that made the recommendations on December 15.
Constitutional experts say such writ petitions are reserved for private citizens and not for someone who holds a public position. And by filing the petition, he had overstepped his jurisdiction.
After the Supreme Court on February 23 overturned Oli’s decision to dissolve the House, its meeting was scheduled for March 7.
The government was under a constitutional and legal obligation to table the ordinances. However, that couldn’t happen because the then Dahal-Nepal faction, Nepali Congress and the Janata Samajbadi Party created obstacles.
Article 114 (2) of the constitution requires an ordinance to be presented at the first meeting of the House. Rule 93 (1) of the Regulation of the House of Representatives says the ordinances issued as per Article 114 should be presented at the first meeting of the House session.
The CPN-UML, which was revived on Sunday, has criticised Sapkota for failing to perform his duty as the Speaker.
“Isn’t it clear that the Speaker has failed to perform his job?” Bishal Bhattarai, chief whip of the UML, told the Post. “It is up to the Speaker how he corrects the mistake of breaching the constitutional provision and parliamentary regulation.”
The Oli administration had issued eight ordinances including the one related to the Constitutional Council (Functions, Duties and Procedures) Act-2010 on December 15.
Officials from Sapkota’s Secretariat, however, say even if Sapkota didn’t call the Business Advisory Committee meeting, he made every attempt for negotiations among the parties.
“It's the Speaker’s prerogative whether to call a meeting of the Business Advisory Committee,” Shreedhar Neupane, press adviser to Sapkota, told the Post. “The Speaker was constantly in touch with cross-party leaders. They refused to budge from their positions.”
But parties do have disagreements, say analysts and those who have closely watched Parliament meetings work.
“That’s why there is a presiding officer called Speaker who has to maintain an image that’s free from any political leanings,” said Surya Kiran Gurung, former general secretary at the Parliament Secretariat. “The main responsibility of the Speaker is coordination. If the Speaker fails to do so, it clearly means he is not a good performer.”