With government unsure of its own strength, House deprived of businessDeuba cannot risk rejection of bills without ensuring the support of Nepal faction of UML and Thakur camp of Janata Samajbadi that gave him trust vote, observers say.
Since its reinstatement by the Supreme Court on July 12, the House of Representatives has met seven times.
Except for Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba winning a confidence vote on July 18, there is little the lower house has done in terms of its work. Speaker Agni Sapkota has limited the House business to zero hour and special hour sessions and endorsement of condolence motions.
The government has not given it any business.
“I have held three-four rounds of meetings with the minister for law, justice and parliamentary affairs and the minister of home affairs urging them to forward bills. But we cannot proceed with the bills without the government’s willingness,” Speaker Agni Sapkota told the media on Wednesday.
Observers say that the Deuba government is not ready to forward bills to the lower house because it is afraid that they might not pass with a majority vote.
“It seems the government wants to ensure it has the necessary numbers in Parliament before tabling the bills for endorsement,” a senior official at the secretariat told the Post on the condition of anonymity.
Although 165 lawmakers of the lower house voted for Deuba during the confidence vote, he would not be in a comfortable position should the House be divided again.
The ruling Nepali Congress has 61 seats and the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre) has 49 in the House of Representatives. The Upendra Yadav-Baburam Bhattarai faction of the Janata Samajbadi Party claims the support of 24 of the party’s 32 lawmakers. The ruling alliance would be short of one vote even if 24 from the Janata Samajbadi Party and one from the Rastriya Janamorcha voted for the government bills.
The support of 136 lawmakers is needed for a majority in the House which currently has 271 lawmakers.
“Rejection of the bill by the House would mean the government lacks a majority. It will raise a moral question for Deuba to remain in power,” Som Bahadur Thapa, a former secretary at the House of Representatives, told the Post.
“It seems the government doesn’t want to take a risk until it is sure about the passage of the bills. But the delay in providing the bills to the House has given a negative message about the government.”
Whether the Mahantha Thakur faction of the Janata Samajbadi Party supports the bills is uncertain although it had voted for Deuba during the vote of confidence, especially after Thakur was stripped of party chair earlier this week.
Further, as many as 22 lawmakers from the CPN-UML who supported Deuba will have to follow the party whip if the party directs them to vote against the bills.
There are over six dozen bills pending in the federal parliament, some of them since the first House session in 2018. In addition to deciding the fate of 15 ordinances issued by the erstwhile KP Sharma Oli government, there are 55 different bills that need to be endorsed. Many of them are related to the implementation of federalism.
The Federal Civil Service Bill and Federal Public Service Commission Bill, which need to be enacted for provincial governments to hire civil servants, are among them. Provincial laws, including those governing civil service, need to be in line with federal Acts, according to the constitution. Provincial governments have not been able to draft their own laws without the relevant umbrella laws in place. In their absence, the provincial governments have not been able to exercise the authority delegated by the Constitution of Nepal, promulgated six years ago.
The Oli government had faced criticism for trying to prove the Parliament irrelevant by denying it business.
Ever since an abrupt prorogation of the House on July 2 last year, Oli never gave it business. Instead he dissolved the House of Representatives twice—in December and May—but the Supreme Court overturned the dissolutions.
While restoring the House for the second time on July 12, the Supreme Court also ousted Oli, installing Deuba in his place as prime minister.
Though the session of the lower house, after the first dissolution, commenced on March 7 following the Supreme Court’s February 23 order for its reinstatement, not a single bill went through Parliament. The session lasted 44 days—until April 19—but its business was limited to endorsing condolence motions on the demise of incumbent and former lawmakers.
When Deuba became prime minister, there was hope that the constitutional provisions would be followed including making Parliament do its primary job—making laws.
“The government has the opportunity to restore Parliament's supremacy that was overshadowed during Oli’s administration,” Surendra Labh, a political economist, told the Post. “However, preliminary signs aren’t positive. The government seems to be trapped in managing the interests of its coalition partners.”
According to Minister for Energy, Water Resources and Irrigation Pampha Bhusal, since the National Assembly has already started deliberations on and endorsement of bills, the lower house will too become effective soon.
“The lower house will start functioning soon after resolving some technical issues,” Bhusal told the Post, stopping short of elaborating the issues.
If the technical issues mean the support of the Madhav Kumar Nepal and Thakur factions of the CPN-UML and the Janata Samajbadi Party, respectively, it is an indication that the government is in a precarious position.
According to Labh, who follows Madhes politics, Deuba doesn’t seem convinced that the Nepal faction of the UML and the Thakur faction of the Janata Samajbadi Party would rally behind his government in endorsing the bills.
“The Thakur faction hasn’t severed its ties with Oli yet. It can side with Oli any moment to push Deuba into trouble,” said Labh. “Deuba knows this very well. If a government bill is rejected, Deuba will be under moral pressure.”
Lawmakers from the Nepal faction also say that their support is not a guarantee.
“Whether we will support government bills is a hypothetical question,” Birodh Khatiwada, a UML lawmaker from the Nepal faction, told the Post. “Let the bills be presented first, then we will decide where to stand.”
Besides giving business to the House, Deuba also needs to give full shape to his government which completes its one month on Friday. At present, besides Deuba, there are just four ministers and a minister of state running the executive branch of the state.
“Delay in presenting the bills is the result of the delay in Cabinet expansion and this is clearly a failure of the Deuba government and the ruling alliance to set priorities,” Hari Roka, a political analyst, told the Post.
“I don’t think the government lacks the number in the lower house. The Thakur faction, which is a minority within the party, cannot defy Samajbadi Party’s decision if it decides to vote in favour of any government bill.”
According to Labh, as a party that claims to stand for democracy, it is incumbent upon the Nepali Congress, which leads the government, to facilitate the House functioning.
Meanwhile, Speaker Sapkota can only appeal to the parties to ensure Parliament's relevance.
“I am preparing to call an all-party meeting to make the House effective,” he said.