President’s swift approval of Monday’s ordinances has many wondering about her role

This is not the first time that President Bhandari’s influence on Prime Minister Oli, and vice-versa, has been called into question.

As often as the KP Sharma Oli government runs into controversy, it tends to drag other institutions down with it, even an office as vaunted as that of the President.

President Bidya Devi Bhandari on Monday approved two controversial ordinances within hours of their issuance by the Oli Cabinet. Bhandari acted uncharacteristically swiftly, leading many to question whether the high office has become an arm of the executive, especially since this is not the first time that suspicions have been raised over Bhandari and Oli acting in collusion.

“The ordinances, given the timing of their issuance, warranted some consultation,” said Surya Dhungel, an advocate who served as legal advisor to former president Ram Baran Yadav. “But that did not happen here. Both the ordinances were approved almost immediately.”

The Oli Cabinet had issued two ordinances on Monday, seeking to amend provisions in the Political Party Act and the Constitutional Council (Functions, Duties and Procedures) Act, despite reservations from some ministers.

The government’s move drew mass criticism almost immediately, especially for issuing ordinances at a time when the focus should have been on fighting the Covid-19 pandemic.

Even leaders from Oli’s Nepal Communist Party questioned the decision.

Ruling party leaders Madhav Kumar Nepal and Bhim Rawal issued statements, objecting to the ordinances, and in an interview with the Post’s sister paper Kantipur, senior leader Jhala Nath Khanal described the government’s decisions as ill-timed.

While there is nothing wrong per se with presidential approval of the ordinances, the high office must take the necessity, urgency and the timing of such ordinances into account, say experts.

“It’s strange that the Office of the President neither bothered to seek advice from experts nor sought time to study the ordinances,” said Dhungel.

But the august Office of the President has already been dragged into controversy numerous times in the past. Analysts have long questioned the influence that Bhandari has on Oli, and vice-versa. Ruling party insiders have also questioned the manner in which the top leadership has sought presidential advice in sorting out the party's internal differences.

Most recently, the President faced criticism for addressing the nation regarding the government’s efforts to fight Covid-19, something that analysts said should have been done by the country’s executive head, or the health minister.

Critics had blamed the Oli administration for using the Office of the President as a cover up for its poor handling of the situation in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.

These allegations are concerning because the constitution of Nepal recognises the President as the patron of the constitution and above all partisan interests. But the manner in which President Bhandari has often acted has led many to question whether she still remains a UML party member.

Bhandari’s swift approval of Monday’s ordinances provides room for doubt as to whether the entire event had been orchestrated in advance, say analysts.

“The Office of the President must take into account the content and timing of ordinances before endorsing them,” said Bipin Adhikari, former dean at the Kathmandu University School of Law.

The constitution allows the government to introduce ordinances under urgent circumstances when Parliament is in recess. But these ordinances, aimed at amending two laws, were not urgently required, especially in the middle of a pandemic, say critics. And if the government had waited a few weeks, the proposed amendments could easily have been passed through Parliament itself.

Last year, the budget session of Parliament started on April 28.

Experts say there was ample room for the Office of the President to question the motive behind issuing two ordinances when the government should have been preparing to call the House session.

“The President should not have approved them so hurriedly,” said Adhikari.

According to a ruling party leader, some lawmakers had urged the President to not delay promulgating the ordinances, as Oli wanted the process to be swift.

“The prime minister has defended his decision saying that if the government recommends something to the President, there is no question of approving it quickly or delaying it,” said the leader who spoke on condition of anonymity as he feared retribution.

The primary opposition Nepali Congress too has raised questions over the role of the president.

Eleven Central Working Committee members of the Congress party on Wednesday alleged that the Office of the President was working at the behest of the ruling party.

“The way the President endorsed the ordinances in such a hurried manner has created suspicion,” they said in a joint statement. “This incident has made the hallowed institution of the President look like an aide of a political party. The President is not a person but an institution and we caution all to preserve its dignity.”

Bhesh Raj Adhikari, an aide to President Bhandari, however, defended Bhandari’s decision.

“The President’s job is to see if the ordinances are constitutional or not before approving them,” Adhikari told the Post. “She concluded that both the ordinances were in line with the constitution and fulfilled her presidential duty with due process.”