Parties offering high offices to pacify leadership aspirants subverts cause

Observers say Nepal should start appointing non-partisan individuals as the country’s President and Vice President to protect the impartiality of the top positions.

The first meeting of the Constituent Assembly on May 28, 2008 declared Nepal a federal republic, ending the centuries-old monarchy. The 19-day long people’s movement in 2006 against king Gyanendra Shah set the stage for the abolition of monarchy.

There was quite an appealing slogan Nepali political parties presented—that the sons and daughters of the poor would hold the country’s highest position in the republican setup unlike in the monarchy in which successors were chosen by birth.

The Maoists, who waged a war against the state, had made the abolition of monarchy one of their demands, had pitched their chair Pushpa Kamal Dahal as the first president of republic Nepal. Walls in Kathmandu and elsewhere were covered with Dahal’s images, with messages reading he’d take the presidential position.

But politics has its own ways.

Even then Nepali Congress president Girija Prasad Koirala, who led the country’s transition to a republic as senior-most politician, harboured presidential aspirations but he got no backing from the Maoists, who had emerged as the largest party in the Assembly. When the time came to elect the President, the Maoist party fielded Ram Raja Prasad Singh. The Nepali Congress fielded Ram Baran Yadav.

On July 21, Yadav was elected the first president of Nepal. It was a remarkable transition that installed a member of the public in the country’s highest office.

The constitution adopted on September 20, 2015 formally institutionalised the decision of the Constituent Assembly.

Yadav came from the Madhesi community which was historically deprived of a respectable share in the state authority. What’s more, Pramananda Jha, yet another Madhesi, held the Vice President’s office.

After Yadav’s seven years in office, Bidya Devi Bhandari, a woman, succeeded him. Bhandari continues to be the Head of State now, six years running. The current Vice President, Nanda Bahadur Pun, represents the Janajati community.

It was like the country had achieved what political parties had promised.

Now, 14 years after the monarchy was consigned to history and six years after the promulgation of the constitution which institutionalised Nepal as a federal republic, political parties appear to be making the high offices something that they can pull out of their kitty.

Bhandari is likely to serve for one more year, but there is no clarity yet.

However, Nepali p0litical parties, almost all are fractious, have been using the two high offices as a tool to manage those leaders who cannot “be adjusted” within the party mechanisms.

It started with the CPN-UML, the main opposition.

As the party went into its 10th national congress, its chair KP Sharma Oli wanted new office bearers and central members on the basis of consensus, something extremely difficult in Nepali parties where there are too many aspirants for various posts.

Oli wanted Ishwar Pokhrel as senior vice-chairperson while Subas Nembang, who served as the chair of the Constituent Assembly twice, also laid claim to the post.

After Nembang refused to budge, Oli reportedly offered him the post of the President. Nembang, however, refused to rise to the bait, saying the offer was too abstract and that there was no guarantee that the UML would have enough strength to claim the position after elections. He settled for the post of party vice-chair. Oli also reportedly offered the Vice President post to Asta Laxmi Shakya so as to dissuade her from staking claim to an office bearer post. Shakya, however, was later given party vice-chair.

As soon as the UML general convention was over, the Nepali Congress, currently the leader in the five-party ruling coalition, expedited its preparations for the 14th general convention. Congress President Sher Bahadur Deuba is planning to secure another term as the party leader. But for that, he needs to placate the rival faction, led by Ram Chandra Poudel, also eying the top post.

In the Poudel camp itself there are too many aspirants for the post of party president—Shashank Koirala, Shekhar Koirala and Prakash Man Singh.

In a bid to find a consensus candidate against Deuba, leaders in the Poudel faction had proposed the post of the country’s President to Poudel or Singh. It, however, did not work out.

After Shashank withdrew from the race, Shekhar and Prakash Man now appear firm on contesting for the post of Congress president, leaving Poudel fuming.

Observers say Nepal’s political parties have been undergoing a deterioration, that the parties are undermining the country's high offices by treating them as their fiefdoms.

They say appointments of the country’s President and Vice President should not be based on political expediency, rather non-partisan individuals should be appointed.

Bipin Adhikari, former dean at Kathmandu University School of Law, says those leaders who are extremely ambitious within their parties are being offered the positions of President and Vice President.

He said the parties that overthrew monarchy must learn to respect the constitutional high offices created in the republican system.

“A national figure who can act as a symbol of unity should actually be the President,” said Adhikari. “In India, the people from ethnic and religious minority communities, women or the renowned personalities are picked as presidential candidates who play a fair role.”

When someone with a long association with a particular party is appointed the President, political analysts say there are chances of him or her serving the interest of their respective parties and not the citizens of the country as mandated by the constitution.

“The parties have disgraced the post of President and Vice President,” Hari Roka, a political commentator, told the Post. “The way the parties are offering these posts to their leaders shows they are not interested in working in the interest of the public. If the trend continues, and if parties have their way, the same old politicians will continue to play the game of musical chairs to occupy the high offices.”

Analysts say appointing a true-blue party member as President always comes with the risk of the high office being exploited. For example, some of the decisions of President Bhandari were criticised for allegedly favouring former Prime Minister Oli.

“How parties appoint presidents tells a lot about how committed they are to republicanism,” said Meena Vaidya Malla, a former professor of Political Science at the Tribhuvan University.