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Directly Election !

Bipin Adhikari
The Kathmandu Post
12 February, 2009

"Some politicians have been championing direct election of the prime minister as the parliamentary system has failed to give political stability"

A number of Nepali Congress politicians led by ideologue Narhari Acharya have been garnering support for changing Nepal's existing parliamentary system into a hybrid political system which recommends direct election of the prime minister within the framework of a bicameral legislature.

The proposal has the support of political scientists like Professor Krishna Khanal and senior lawyer like Radheshyam Adhikari. Their argument is that the parliamentary system fashioned after the Westminster model has failed to give political stability to the nation, and that this is the best alternative.

Like many other countries, Nepal operates under a parliamentary system, where the executive prime minister runs the government, and the president as constitutional head of state, represents the nation. A member of the House of Representatives supported by a majority becomes prime minister. After an election, the head of the state nominates the prime minister based on his strength in the house. He is usually the chairman of the majority party which wins the election. The prime minister appoints his own cabinet; and they are all accountable, either individually or collectively, to the House of Representatives.

In other words, the administration of the country is conducted according to the wishes of the people as expressed through their representatives in parliament. While a number of changes have been made recently to fit these norms into the framework of the (unicameral) Constituent Assembly, the basic rule of the parliamentary system that the house elects the prime minister commanding its confidence still persists. No sooner is this confidence lost than the house initiates the process of forming another government.

Apparently, the system of directly elected prime minister is not a form of cabinet government, which a leading English essayist Walter Bagehot described, as a 'hyphen' that joins a buckle and fastens the executive and legislative organs of the state together. In this system (if it is a system at all), there is no fusion between the executive and the legislature, and the cabinet has no collective responsibility to the house. When there is a directly elected prime minister, he would no longer be chosen by parliament amid post-election coalition bargaining, but be directly elected by the population in a separate ballot. This proposal includes electoral reform which tries to synthesize both parliamentary and presidential systems of government, but it creates none because of its inherent weakness as a model, and lack of other constitutional parameters, which maintains the institutional parameters of the system.

The advocates of the system of direct election of the prime minister seem to be keen to cite Israel as a model. It is a poor model, though. Until the 1980s, Israel had almost the same model that Nepal had under the 1990 Constitution. It also provided for a powerful executive, headed by a prime minister formally regarded as first among equals but actually enjoying a powerful position in leading the government. In the late 1980s, when the stalemate created by small and medium-sized parties led to a situation of immobilization, the proposal of direct election of the prime minister was adopted, out of many reforms proposed since the establishment of Israel. This was an attempt to deal with the increasingly fragmented nature of the unicameral parliament, which for example, had 13 parties with six seats or less as a result of the 1988 elections.

The aim was to give, as Narhari Acharya and his associates have been arguing in the present case, more power to the prime minister by freeing the position of dependency upon the support of minor parties in parliament, which had previously been used to bring down governments over relatively trivial matters.

So far so good. In March 1992, the Knesset enacted a new basic law which provided Israel with the distinction of being the only country to have direct popular election of the prime minister. Israeli voters were asked to write two votes on the same ballot paper - one for a proportional party list for parliament and one for an individual. Parliament would continue to be chosen by a strict list system of proportional representation with the entire state serving as one constituency. An absolute majority of the vote was necessary to elect the prime minister in the first round; if that was not obtained, a second round would be held two weeks later in which only the two highest scoring candidates in the previous round participated.

The objective of strengthening the position of the prime minister by having separate elections was a failure. The 1992 reform was implemented first in the 1996 elections. In fact, three prime ministers were elected directly under this scheme. Of the first two, neither was able to complete a full term. The system was blamed for creating further fragmentation of the legislature and severe political instability in the country. Thus, in early 2001, the government enacted a new law and repealed direct election of the prime minister and restored general parliamentary elections.

Nepal has a long history as a parliamentary system. Some form of parliaments existed in the country during the last five decades. In particular, the1990 Constitution, based on the outstanding ability of all political forces, was able to take democracy to every household in far flung villages. Although, the country was not able to face external challenges, almost every adult knows the basics of the system after all these years- adult franchise, formation of the government, coalition process, ministerial responsibility, no confidence motion, and the role of public institutions. For most of the people, democracy means parliamentary democracy, and nothing else. It is already rooted in the conscience of the people.

By now the people of Nepal know how the parliamentary system operates, and how governments come and go. The greatest advantage of the parliamentary system is that most of the politically active people know where the shoe pinches, and what should be on the agenda of constitutional reform, to fix the shoe and make it smooth. There is no reason why they should be offered something that will require another fifty years of experimentation.

One cannot, of course, legislate for a sense of belonging. Moreover, let's not minimize the fact that the parliamentary system is better able to give space to diversity, social inclusion and multiple leadership than any other alternative before the nation. There are political considerations everywhere, but there must be an impulse to do right, because it is right.

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