House obstructions, if continue, can lead to financial deadlockAs Speaker fails to resolve the crisis, there are concerns the government may have its hands tied when it comes to spending, with just two days to get the budget endorsed.
Speaker Agni Sapkota’s attempt to resolve the ongoing House crisis fell flat on Monday after the CPN-UML boycotted an all-party meeting called by him, in what is indicative of the double standards of the main opposition and the presiding official’s lack of competence as well as partisan politics undermining Parliament.
Parliamentary proceedings have been obstructed by the UML ever since the ninth session of the House started on Wednesday. The coalition government, however, aided by the Speaker, has been steamrollering bills and ordinances. On Friday, there was pandemonium in Parliament—opposition lawmakers tried to breach security to reach the rostrum from where Finance Minister Janardan Sharma read out the revised budget. He completed the budget amid sloganeering from UML lawmakers.
The UML did not let the House function on Sunday as well, and subsequently, the Speaker decided to call an all-party meeting for Monday. The UML refused to attend.
“The Speaker's role became instrumental in the UML split and therefore the party is targeting him,” said Daman Nath Dhungana, the former Speaker.
The next House meeting has been called for Tuesday, and given the UML’s strong position, it does not look like it will allow the Parliament to function. The government meanwhile is under pressure to endorse the replacement bill on the budget ordinance presented on Friday.
With just two days remaining—Wednesday is the last day as 60 days will be completed since the ordinance was presented on July 18—some parliamentary rules need to be suspended to endorse the replacement bill, and for this, the Speaker needs the support of all parties.
“If the replacement bill fails to get endorsed from both the houses by Wednesday, the government is not authorised to spend even a single penny,” said a senior official at the Finance Ministry. “We will face a situation like what they call in the United States–a government shutdown.”
But the ministry official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that the government has two options–introducing a vote on account bill to spend a maximum one-third of the total estimated expenditure and ending the current session of Parliament so as to create a situation for introducing the same budget again through an ordinance.
“But whether the vote on account bill can get through Parliament amid the ongoing obstructions is not sure,” said the official. “But we have been making necessary preparations for the advance expenditure bill as well, though we have not yet got any clear instruction from the political leadership.”
The passage of the vote on account bill does not take a long time and it can be done in a day, but this is not in practice, as the constitution has a mandatory provision that the budget must be presented on the 15th of the Nepali month of Jestha, which is usually May 28 or 29.
A minister said that the Speaker did try to forge an agreement with the main opposition, but it refused.
“Now the budget cannot be halted so the replacement bill will be pushed ahead even by suspending the rules, if needed, and the Speaker may use marshals,” said the minister who did not wish to be named. “There is no other option.”
The ongoing House obstruction can have serious financial ramifications but it has its political origin.
The UML actually has an axe to grind with Speaker Sapkota.
On August 17, the UML wrote to him that it had expelled its 14 lawmakers, including Madhav Kumar Nepal. The party wanted the Speaker to issue a notice in accordance with the decision. The Speaker refused to oblige.
Aided by an ordinance to ease party splits, introduced by the Deuba government on August 18, Madhav Nepal on August 26 registered a new party—CPN (Unified Socialist).
The UML believes Sapkota failed to play an independent role of the Speaker and acted more like a cadre of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre).
Sapkota was elected to the post of Speaker in January last year after a months-long tug-of-war between KP Sharma Oli and Pushpa Kamal Dahal, who then jointly chaired the Nepal Communist Party (NCP), formed after a merger between the UML and the Maoist Centre.
Sapkota’s election was seen as a victory for Dahal, who was having a tough relationship with Oli then despite being in the same party. Sapkota, a long-time Maoist leader, is seen as a key ally of Dahal.
Oli and Sapkota, however, have not shared cordial relations.
Thirteen days after the UML decision to expel Nepal and 13 other lawmakers, Sapkota on August 29 said that there was no need to issue any notice, much to the chagrin of the main opposition.
The UML still wants the Speaker to issue a notice.
Some believe the UML is now flogging a dead horse, but observers say the ongoing House crisis serves as a great example of how Nepali parties have failed to imbibe parliamentary culture even after more than three decades of practice.
“Our political parties and leaders are indifferent to constitutional values and principles, let alone the parliamentary system,” said Dhungana. “The UML is least bothered about such values because it believes it has committed voters who are not conscious about such democratic and parliamentary values.”
The UML, however, is not the only party to resort to such obstructions. When the UML was in power until a few months ago, the opposition parties too had tried to block the government from presenting ordinances. The constitution requires that any ordinance has to be presented at the first meeting of the House.
“It’s not just the UML, all the parties are the same when it comes to undermining Parliament and the overall system,” said Surya Kiran Gurung, former general secretary of the Parliament Secretariat. “The whole system could collapse if they do not correct their activities just to fulfil their partisan interests.”
According to Gurung, it’s strange that Nepali politicians are bent on trampling upon the hallowed institution called Parliament that they are the custodians of.
After Monday’s fiasco, uncertainty continues to loom over the House proceedings.
According to Dhungana, there are three options now—first, the UML should soften its stance and help resolve the issue; second, the Speaker should fulfil the opposition’s demands; and third, a mediator should try to resolve the issue.
“If all these options fail, the country could head towards early polls,” said Dhungana.
The most pressing issue, however, is the budget. Failure to get the budget replacement bill through the House by Wednesday will not only create a political crisis but also a financial deadlock.
Subas Nembang, deputy leader of the UML’s Parliamentary Party, said that the replacement bill cannot be passed in two days even if the rules are suspended.
“I wonder what the ruling coalition is actually thinking,” Nembang told the post. “Even if the Speaker manages to suspend the rules, the replacement bill must be endorsed by both the houses. It cannot be done in two days.”
According to Nembang, the UML cannot be blamed for any problem in endorsing the budget because the government had ample time to endorse the budget.
“But the ruling coalition invested its energy in splitting the UML,” he said.
According to Gopal Nath Yogi, secretary at the House of Representatives, some options are still there before the Wednesday deadline for the budget.
“Endorsing the replacement bill by observing ‘a budget holiday’ after Wednesday, bringing an advance expenditure bill or bringing an ordinance by proroguing the House session are some options,” said Yogi. “There is a tradition to suspend the rules through consensus among the parties, but the situation does not look favourable now. It depends on how the ruling coalition makes its move.”