The House got a new lease of life. Now it should get deputy SpeakerExperts say parties in power must not undermine the fact that constitutional obligations are attached with the post, which the previous government failed to pay heed to.
When Krishna Bahadur Mahara stepped down in October 2019 following attempt to rape allegations, it set off a tusssle in the then Nepal Communist Party (NCP), with both chairs KP Sharma Oli and Pushpa Kamal Dahal trying to extract the position for person of their choice.
After flexing muscles for months, Dahal finally managed to install his man, Agni Sapkota, as the head of the House of Representatives in the third week of January 2020. The quarrel over the post among leaders of the same party is a testament to how Nepali politicians pay little attention to the system. After Sapkota’s name was decided for House Speaker, Shiva Maya Tumbahangphe resigned as deputy Speaker on January 20, 2020, as constitutional provisions do not allow both posts to members of the same party.
Ever since, the post of deputy Speaker has been vacant and it has been a year and a half. The then ruling Nepal Communist Party (NCP) didn’t want the position to go to the main opposition Nepali Congress. As then Upendra Yadav-led Samajbadi Party Nepal had pulled out of the KP Sharma Oli government on December 24, 2o19, it was out of the race. Negotiations were held to allow the Rastriya Janata Party Nepal to take the position, but it merged with the Samajbadi Party to form the Janata Samajbadi Party in April 2020.
Nepal’s political dynamics, however, has seen a drastic change in the last 10 days. Congress President Sher Bahadur Deuba has been appointed prime minister with the backing of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre), which had a rebirth after the Supreme Court on March 7 this year invalidated the Nepal Communist Party (NCP).
Oli’s CPN-UML is now the opposition party.
Among the seven parties in the House of Representatives, the Maoist Centre cannot claim the post of deputy Speaker because Sapkota was elected Speaker from the party. The Rastriya Prajatantra Party and Nepal Majdoor Kisan Party don’t have women lawmakers, hence they are not in the fray. Rastriya Janamorcha is not willing to take the position because it has only one member in the House. Last year, when it was offered the position, it did not accept saying its presence in the House would end if the party’s only lawmaker Durga Poudel took the position.
The deputy Speaker’s post now can either go to the ruling Nepali Congress or the Janata Samajbadi Party, unless the UML lays claim to it.
Experts on parliamentary affairs say in Nepal such crucial posts have been seen just as a technical process, ignoring so many constitutional obligations and values attached to them.
“It is yet another glaring example of how the Oli government failed to comply with the constitution,” Daman Nath Dhungana, a former Speaker and a civil society leader, told the Post. “Oli didn’t attack the constitution overnight; he made such attacks one step at a time.”
According to Dhungana, the new ruling alliance which has promised to bring the constitution and the parliamentary process back on track, should prioritise the election of the crucial constitutional appointment.
The constitution requires Speaker and deputy Speaker to be from two different parties and the posts must be distributed between individuals of different genders.
For the Oli government, which dissolved the House twice in a span of less than six months, deputy Speaker was never a priority, but experts say the party in power failed to acknowledge the importance of the post defined by the constitution.
The deputy Speaker’s role, as defined by the constitution, is to chair the House in the absence of the Speaker. But the deputy Speaker is also a key member of the Constitutional Council that recommends appointments for various constitutional bodies which are mandated to put the government in check.
Advocate Tulasi Simkhada, who had moved the Supreme Court seeking a ruling to elect a deputy Speaker, said the position is meant not only for ensuring smooth functioning of the House but also to create a fine balance in the Constitutional Council.
The Constitutional Council, chaired by the prime minister, consists of the chief justice, Speaker, National Assembly chair, deputy Speaker and the leader of the opposition.
But instead of taking initiatives to appoint a deputy Speaker, Oli amended the Constitution Council Act through an ordinance to make it easier for him to hold meetings and make appointments. The ordinance was repealed after the Deuba government was formed, but the appointments, as many as 52, have been challenged in the Supreme Court.
Dhungana said the scenario could have been different had there been a deputy Speaker.
“And since the constitution required a woman to be elected deputy Speaker, she could have lobbied for more women for constitutional commissions to make them more inclusive,” Dhungana told the Post.
Except in the National Women Commission, women’s representation is minimal in the other 12 commissions. Those from the Brahmin and Chhetri communities have the highest representation in the commissions.
The Supreme Court on June 28 last year had sought a clarification from the government for delaying the process of appointing a deputy Speaker. The court, however, is yet to issue a final verdict.
Simkhada said as the court has listed it as a priority petition, it is expected that the final hearing would start soon.
“It is unfortunate in the parliamentary democracy that the court has to intervene even in the election of the deputy Speaker,” he told the Post.
Now that the Congress party has returned to power, it is incumbent upon it to start the process to elect a deputy Speaker. But it’s easier said than done.
Prime Minister Deuba is already struggling to expand his Cabinet, as he has to satisfy his partners–the Maoist Centre and the Janata Samajbadi Party–as well as factions in his own party.
Rajendra Shrestha, a Janata Samajbadi leader, said the Congress, the Maoist Centre and his party have formed a seven-member task force to take decisions on different issues including the election of the deputy Speaker.
“The task force will prepare a common minimum programme, set priorities of the government and develop criteria for appointments in the constitutional and other bodies, including the election of the deputy Speaker,” Shrestha told the Post. “The three parties will decide on the deputy Speaker issue soon.”
According to Shrestha, the dissident faction of the CPN-UML, led by Madhav Nepal, too will be taken into consideration. As many as 14 UML lawmakers from the Nepal faction and eight from the Oli camp had voted for Deuba during the vote of confidence on Sunday. And as a quid pro quo, the ruling alliance is likely to arrange some positions for them.
The Nepali Congress concedes that the deputy Speaker’s post is part of a larger deal on portfolio sharing among the parties.
“We are well aware of the urgency to fill the position of deputy Speaker,” Purna Bahadur Khadka, a Congress general secretary, told the Post.
Deuba’s win in the confidence vote on Sunday not only ensured his term as prime minister for the next 18 months but also gave the full term to the House, which was almost killed twice by Oli.
Of the total five years of its life, the House remained dissolved for around four months, and for over a year and a half it has been without a deputy Speaker.
Dhungana, the former Speaker, says if the current ruling party is committed to restoring parliamentary supremacy, it should start showing it practices what it preaches.
“The ruling parties should prove that their fight wasn’t just to attain power but to put the constitutional course back on the right track,” Dhungana told the Post. “How early the House gets its deputy Speaker will also determine how committed they are to constitutionalism and parliamentary democracy.”