A dysfunctional House is betrayal of democracy, electorate, observers sayParliament has failed to function for the last six months due to the protests by opposition UML against the Speaker.
The next meeting of the House of Representatives is scheduled for Sunday, and the main opposition CPN-UML has vowed to continue obstructions. Sunday marks six months since the UML resorted to obstructing parliamentary proceedings since its previous session that started on September 8, as per the Nepali calendar.
Unlike in the past when the main opposition would obstruct House proceedings to protest against actions and inactions of the government of the day, the UML, however, has not much gripe about the Sher Bahadur Deuba-led government. Its decision to obstruct proceedings stems from its dissatisfaction at Speaker Agni Sapkota.
The UML has adamantly stuck to its demand that the Speaker take cognizance of the party’s decision on August 14 to expel 14 lawmakers. Those “expelled’ by the UML, however, have already formed a new party, and the Speaker has maintained that he cannot issue a notice now.
Just two government proposals—the national budget and the Millennium Challenge Corporation Nepal Compact—and four budget-related bills have been passed by the lower house in the last six months despite UML’s obstructions.
Now that the UML remains adamant on its stance, there is no certainty when the House can resume its regular meetings.
Of the five-year term of the lower house, six months have been wasted without any single debate on laws or concerns of the people who voted for the parties, and that’s quite concerning, say observers. People elect politicians to the House to ensure that their concerns would be debated. By obstructing the proceedings, the UML has undermined the electorate as well, according to observers.
Questions now have started to arise also about Nepal’s parliamentary culture.
Experts on parliamentary affairs say a responsible party must justify its every action but the UML does not have proper justification for the months-long obstruction.
“This is an anarchy by the UML. It has not just undermined the institution of representatives of the sovereign people but also made light of people’s mandate,” Daman Nath Dhungana, a former Speaker and a civil society member, told the Post. “I believe time has come to appoint an ombudsman to check such unjustified acts by any party. There has to be a law in place for the appointment of such an ombudsman who can then intervene in such situations.”
Nepal’s political parties have a history of taking the sovereign parliament hostage to fulfil their partisan interests. In the past too, the UML had obstructed the House for several days. The UML in 1995 had obstructed the lower house for 57 days, questioning the impartiality of then Speaker Ram Chandra Poudel.
It has already surpassed its earlier record. On both occasions, the UML’s vexation is at the Speaker.
While the UML, in principle, holds the right to protest in Parliament, as it said that the House belongs to the opposition, experts say continued obstructions should not be tolerated. According to experts.
Dhungana says except in Bangladesh, where the House has functioned without an opposition party, he doesn’t know any democratic country where the parliamentary activities are obstructed for months.
Experts say obstruction of the House is an arbitrary action as it paralyses the institution that has the authority to hold the government to account.
UML leaders, however, say it is within their right and their freedom of expression to air their dissent in Parliament.
“Injustice has been done to us because neither the Parliament nor the Supreme Court has addressed our concerns. The obstruction is our compulsion to build pressure,” Bishal Bhattarai, chief whip of the UML , told the Post. “Either the Parliament or the court should give a way out.”
The UML on August 14 recommended that Sapkota sack 14 of its lawmakers, including Madhav Nepal. However, Sapkota waited until they formed the CPN (Unified Socialist). He then issued a statement on August 29 saying it was not necessary to take action against them as they had already formed a new party.
UML on September 1 had challenged Sapkota’s decision not to issue a notice of expelling the lawmakers as per the party’s decision.
Experts on constitutional matters say there is nothing called absolute freedom.
Chandra Kant Gyawali, a senior advocate who specialises on constitutional law, says the regulations of the federal parliament need to be revised imposing restrictions on unlimited obstruction.
“I think a petition needs to be filed at the Supreme Court seeking its intervention against unlimited House obstruction,” Gyawali told the Post. “The court can explain that no party can obstruct the parliamentary process indefinitely. Expressing dissent cannot go to the extent of crippling an organ of the state.”
The federal parliament has 57 bills to endorse including 42 in the lower house. Bills to amend the Citizenship Act, Federal Civil Service, Federal Police Service, Federal Education and Public Service Commission are some of the crucial ones awaiting parliamentary endorsement.
The last session lasted 51 days but did not endorse a single bill, except for those related to the budget, owing to the continuous obstruction by UML lawmakers. Until now, the ongoing session that began on December 14 too has not endorsed a single bill.
Advocate Radheshyam Adhikari, who retired as a National Assembly member on Friday, says continued House obstruction is a cause for concern but since it is a political issue, it is hard to be controlled by a law.
“Yes, that doesn’t mean any party can obstruct the parliamentary proceedings indefinitely. The UML must have lifted its protest after registering its concerns in the House,” Adhikari, also an advocate, told the Post. “We have seen physical fights between lawmakers in parliaments of different countries. But that’s a day’s event; the next day or the next meeting runs smoothly. Such fist-fightings do not lead to obstructions for weeks or months like in our case.”
According to Adhikari, like every other party, the UML too sought votes from the people, saying that it would raise their concerns in the House. Continued obstruction is tantamount to betraying the people who voted for them, said Adhikari.
After six months of continued obstructions, the UML also is now finding itself in a peculiar position. Lifting the obstructions could mean retreating from its demand, and there is little likelihood of their demand getting addressed.
When the ruling coalition was struggling to find consensus on ratifying the $500 million American grant from Parliament, Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba had reached out to the UML to seek its support. Leaders had said one of the conditions for the UML to support the government on the grant agreement was removal of the Speaker. But with the MCC compact ratified after an agreement among coalition partners, that option too has faded.
Constitutional lawyers say if the House cannot function because of continued obstructions by a certain party, the Speaker has every right to start proceedings using marshals after informing the Business Advisory Committee.
“Sapkota, however, doesn’t hold the moral ground to do so because he has failed in playing an impartial role,” Bipin Adhikari, a professor and former dean at Kathmandu University School of Law, told the Post. “I see two options: the prime minister should either take initiative for reconciliation or dissolve the House. There is no point continuing the House which has become completely dysfunctional.”