Can Paudel restore credibility of President’s Office?The septuagenarian Nepali Congress politician will be watched for any partisan favour in the high office that calls for a non-partisan role.
Ram Chandra Paudel is stepping into Sheetal Niwas hot on the heels of Bidya Devi Bhandari, who got into a number of controversies for being overly supportive of prime minister KP Sharma Oli while blocking some crucial laws forwarded during the premiership of Sher Bahadur Deuba.
Political leaders and analysts say Bhandari did not heed public concern, for instance when she was criticised for blocking public movement while travelling by road. She also failed to rise above the interests of the party that catapulted her to the top state position, they add.
Bhandari was a vice-chair of Oli’s CPN-UML party before she became the country’s President in 2015. As Paudel also served as the Nepali Congress vice-president for eight years, he may be watched for any partisan favour in the high office that calls for a non-partisan role.
Bhandari is thought to have shown a foreign policy bias as well while the constitution calls for the President’s balanced approach to Nepal’s neighbours and friendly countries. In September 2022, despite reservations from then-prime minister Deuba and foreign minister Narayan Khadka, she virtually attended a Global Security Initiative (GSI) meeting organised by the Communist Party of China.
Bhandari is criticised for rubber-stamping Oli’s decisions as prime minister, including his twin dissolutions of the House of Representatives. Once he takes the oath of office, Paudel’s job, as many suggest, is to correct Bhandari’s mistakes and do his bid to win public trust and shore up respect for the Office of the President.
“Paudel should keep national interests at the core,” said Madhav Kumar Nepal, chairman of the CPN (Unified Socialist), a party that voted for him. “The President is the guardian of the country.”
Paudel should not do anything to harm the country, Nepal added. “He should be the President of all.”
Questions against and concerns over the ceremonial and constitutional post arose after both Ram Baran Yadav (the first President) and Bhandari (second) sometimes deviated from their prescribed duties. In May 2009, Yadav, acting in the capacity of the supreme commander of Nepal Army, reinstated the army chief sacked by prime minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal. Following this, Dahal resigned his post. Yadav’s action was based on dubious constitutional grounds.
Ahead of his election on Thursday, Paudel said he would try to make the presidency starkly different from monarchy. He was probably hinting at the ways the first two presidents, Bhandari in particular, behaved in public. During the presidential inauguration, the head of state is taken to the parliament building in a carcade involving horse-drawn carriages. The display is not only pompous, it also restricts public movement for hours. The same is true in the case of the President’s regular carcade. President Bhandari drew much public flak for such uncaring behaviour. The role of democratic president is found to be no different to the monarchs of the past, some argue.
“I’m aware of the people’s concerns. I’ll work to meet their expectations. An effective implementation of the constitution is my concern,” Paudel said on Thursday. “I will work for the strengthening of democracy and federal, secular and republic Nepal and make an honest effort to protect the letter and spirit of the constitution.”
Sources close to Paudel told the Post that he will discuss ways to make the President’s movements less pompous with security agencies so that the common people are not inconvenienced. Paudel, after securing victory in the presidential election, had requested the security agencies that were deployed to ensure his hassle-free travel and desist from using sirens.
Political experts and observers advise Paudel to maintain the impartiality of the high office. Former speaker Damannath Dhungana said the first and foremost duty of Paudel would be to maintain neutrality and serve as the President of the country, not a particular party.
Before the nomination of presidential candidates, there was a discussion in political circles that a ‘neutral’ candidate should get the top job.
“The activities that make the institution of the President to be seen as a power centre must stop. The new President should rise above partisan politics,” said Dhungana. “As enshrined in the constitution, the President should work with the prime minister and other state entities strictly along the constitutional path.”
Some UML leaders suspect Paudel may hold a grudge against their party.
“If we look at Paudel’s track record, he is not so accommodating of the UML,” said Pradeep Gyawali, a UML deputy general secretary. “He has been prejudiced against us in the past.”
“We congratulate him on his election as President. Earlier, he criticised the President for various reasons. Now the scrutiny will be on him. As the country’s President, he should protect the constitution and work to strengthen national unity,” said Gyawali.
Paudel, as well as other leaders of the Congress, the Maoist Centre and the Unified Socialist, among other parties, had criticised President Bhandari for unduly favouring erstwhile prime minister Oli..
People on social media have advised Paudel to ensure that there are no traffic jams when he ventures out. “Previous presidents have eroded the credibility of the office. Paudel should try to restore that credibility,” former chief election commissioner Bhojraj Pokhrel said. “From today, Paudel should be close to no politician but all the people whose aspirations he represents.”
He should rise above partisan interest at a time the credibility of the government and public institutions is eroding and public frustration is growing, Pokhrel added.
“Paudel should try to lead a simple life and shun ostentation. His role as the prime protector of the constitution calls for a very disciplined lifestyle,” said Pokhrel.