Leaving both houses without deputies reflects poorly on parties’ commitmentsAs House Speaker and Assembly chair are men, their deputies have to be women. Parties’ apathy leads some to suspect if they are being neglectful of women’s representation.
As its five-year term gets over later this year, Nepal’s House of Representatives, which lost about one year due to dissolutions and obstructions, went without the deputy Speaker for half of the period.
The position has remained vacant since Shiva Maya Tumbahangphe resigned on January 20, 2020 after she was denied the post of Speaker, and Agni Sapkota was chosen for the post instead. Sapkota, from the CPN (Maoist Centre), became the Speaker on January 26, 2020.
She was forced to resign because Article 91 of the constitution says that the Speaker and the deputy Speaker can’t come from the same party. At that time, both Tumbahangphe and Sapkota were in the then Nepal Communist Party.
For Nepal’s political parties, the deputy Speaker, however, failed to become an agenda, and some women leaders believe it could also be because a woman had to be appointed to the post.
On Thursday, while airing her views during the budget discussions in Parliament, CPN-UML lawmaker Niru Devi Pal said that just talking about women empowerment in the budget is not enough until there are concerted efforts and action.
“Just writing that this is a women friendly budget doesn’t make it so. That has to reflect in action,” she said. “The deputy Speaker’s chair is waiting for ‘her’. Hasn’t this ruling coalition seen it? When will the position be fulfilled?”
Pal may have resorted to the deputy Speaker post issue to hit out at the ruling coalition, but until this Sher Bahadur Deuba government was formed in July last year, her party, the UML, was leading the government.
It was during UML chair KP Sharma Ol’s tenure as prime minister that the post had gone vacant.
Now, not just the deputy Speaker, the position of the vice-chairperson at the National Assembly too is vacant since March 5 after Shashi Kala Dahal retired on completion of her four-year tenure. The same constitutional provision applies to the National Assembly also—the chair and the vice-chair cannot be elected from the same party and gender. The UML’s Ganesh Timilsina currently chairs the upper house.
Nepal’s male-dominated political parties have made umpteen promises for women empowerment, but they seem to be doing little for their representation in various organs of state unless there are constitutional or legal provisions.
Nepal’s Parliament has 33 percent women lawmakers because the constitution requires that. Article 84 (8) stipulates that women members constitute at least one third of the total number of members elected to the federal parliament from the respective parties.
For the post of mayor and deputy mayor or chairs and vice-chairs also, the law says a party must field a man and a woman. In wards, it is legally binding for the parties to field a woman and a Dalit woman as members.
Nepal’s parties, instead of fulfilling the legal and constitutional obligations, try to find loopholes, thereby keeping women far from decision-making positions.
In the case of the deputy Speaker also, parties have not bothered to appoint anyone, as there is no constitutional or legal provision to define for how long the post can remain vacant.
Advocate Tulasi Simkhada in early June 2020 had reached the Supreme Court, arguing that since the deputy Speaker is a member of the Constitutional Council, the position can’t remain vacant for months. His petition had received priority in the Supreme Court.
The court on June 26, 2020 issued a show-cause notice to the government and the Speaker’s secretariat over the delay in electing the deputy Speaker. A single bench of Justice Prakash Dhungana had directed the defendants to furnish a written clarification within 15 days.
Both the government and Speaker’s secretariat claimed in their response that it was the Parliament’s prerogative to elect the deputy Speaker so they are not in a position to intervene in the matter.
According to the constitution, the speaker and the deputy Speaker should be elected within 15 days after the House convenes.
It, however, does not specify a deadline for the election of the deputy Speaker when the incumbent resigns.
Legal experts say delaying the election process for months is against the spirit of the constitution.
“This is a serious negligence on the part of the parties. Neither the CPN-UML took the matter seriously when it was in power commanding a majority, nor the present coalition is serious about the issue,” Simkhada told the Post. “This is a clear breach of the constitution.”
Though the Supreme Court had listed the petition as a priority, it has been delaying the hearing.
Now the hearing has been slated for August 23. There is no clarity on when the term of the current House expires. But polls to elect a new one are most likely to be held in November.
Experts on parliamentary affairs say from the prime minister to the Speaker and the chairperson of the National Assembly are responsible for the delay. According to them, political parties need to perform certain duties without seeing if they are obligated to do so as per the constitutional or legal provisions.
Daman Nath Dhungana, a former Speaker, said everything is not written in the constitution.
“Not electing the deputy Speaker and vice-chairperson in the two houses is against the spirit of the constitution,” he said. “Nobody is interested in fulfilling their constitutional responsibilities.”
According to him, if the parties failed to take initiatives, the House Speaker and the National Assembly chair should have nudged the politicians and started the process.
“It is a shame that the tenure of the lower house is expiring without having the deputy Speaker for years while the National Assembly has been without the vice-chair for months,” said Dhungana. “The leadership of the federal parliament too seems very weak in an unprecedented manner.”
Officials at the Parliament Secretariat say it’s basically up to the political parties to choose the Speaker and the deputy Speaker.
“I can just say no process has been initiated as of now to elect the deputy Speaker,” Gopal Nath Yogi, secretary at the House of Representatives, told the Post. “I cannot say when the deputy Speaker will be elected. It’s the parties that take a decision on the matter.”