President-elect Ram Chandra Paudel will take the oath of office and secrecy on Monday as the third president of republic Nepal. Like his predecessors—Ram Baran Yadav and Bidya Devi Bhandari—Paudel too comes from a political background. The President is regarded as a constitutional head of the state with limited powers defined by the constitution and federal law. But the executive powers are vested in the council of ministers.
Still, electing a politician with executive ambitions could raise the risk Sheetal Niwas emerging as a parallel power center. It was evident in the case of two past presidents that instead of keeping the Office of the President free from politics and controversy, parties view this institution as a tool to advance their political interests. This has eroded the credibility of the president’s office and often become a subject of public criticism.
The tussle between the president and the prime minister erupted right from the time Nepal became a republic by electing a political leader to the post. Ram Baran Yadav, the first president, was a senior Nepali Congress politician loyal to the NC leaders, Girija Prasad Koirala and Sushil Koirala. Similarly, outgoing president Bidya Devi Bhandari came from the CPN-UML. She served two terms in Sheetal Niwas.
Both Yadav and Bhandari were always grateful and loyal to their political patrons, and they showed this gratitude by siding with their parties on more than one occasion.
The two former presidents faced charges of breaching the constitution by interfering in the executive’s jurisdiction and conversely engaging in party politics.
Yadav courted several controversies and faced the charges of acting as a parallel power center. The tussle between the Office of the President and the Office of the Prime Minister over the government’s decision to sack the then Chief of Army Staff Rookmangud Katawal culminated into the resignation of Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal. Yadav took the decision to refuse the government’s move following the whispers of his party.
The Maoist party launched a street movement against the president, and the new republic was to get cougars in a power tussle between the president and prime minister from 2011 to 2015. It was expected that the parties would learn lessons from the first presidency and elect a non-partisan figure as the second head of the state. But the second president, Bhandari, was even more controversial. During her eight-year tenure, Bhandari faced charges of favoring her party, UML. She was heavily criticized for endorsing the decisions of the KP Oli government to dissolve the democratically elected parliament twice.
Once again, Nepal has got an active politician as its president. Moreover, the president-elect is someone who had made several unsuccessful bids to premiership as a NC leader. And unlike Yadav and Bhandari, Paudel is a dominant force in his party.
This begs the question: can Paudel maintain the dignity of his office? There are fears that there could be more confrontation between the president and the prime minister, as a senior leader of a political party has reached Sheetal Niwas.
Paudel has previously held the post of House speaker and several ministerial positions. Though he has achieved the highest position in the country, he still regrets not becoming the prime minister. Even after being elected the president, Paudel said that his preference was to become the executive head rather than the constitutional president. This statement betrays his hunger to wield executive power. It also suggests that Paudel could be a more controversial president than his two predecessors.
Political analysts predict that his dominant personality may put him on a collision course with the government. One NC leader reckons Paudel will start asserting his power after some months into the office, dictating the works of the prime minister. Even the party leader, Sher Bahadur Deuba, cannot control him, adds the leader.
The past presidents have often come to clash with the prime minister on the issue of authenticating bills and ordinances. As per constitution, the president should endorse the ordinances forwarded by the government. But, the problem with the ordinance is that they are designed to serve the petty party and personal interests of the prime minister and his party.
The president often faces the pressures to authenticate the decisions of the executive but at the same time, there is a pressure from the public to reject the decisions, particularly if they contain objectionable provisions.
Regarding the bill endorsed by Parliament, the constitution has given certain rights to the president. Article 113 of the constitution says: In case the President is of the opinion that any bill, except a Money Bill, presented for authentication needs reconsideration, he or she may, within 50 days from the date of submission, send back the bill along with his or her message to the House in which the bill originated. However, if parliament sends the bill to the Office of the President—with or without consideration of the president’s queries—for the second time, it has to be authenticated.
Both Bhandari and Yadav were dragged into controversy due to ordinances. On those issues, the Prime Minister’s Office was equally responsible for bypassing the parliament and trying to steamroll controversial bills or laws through an ordinance. This culture often puts the president at the center of political controversy.
A lack of communication between the president and prime minister in the past has also created misunderstandings between the two institutions. Though Article 81 of the constitution makes it mandatory for the prime minister to inform the president about the bills that are to be introduced in the federal parliament, necessary information, current state of affairs, and matters relating to foreign affairs, the Prime Minister’s Office has consistently failed to do so.
So it is important that both the prime minister and the president’s offices learn lessons from the past and keep their line of communication open at all times. That is how the notion of checks and balances is fostered between the two institutions.
As a senior political leader, the onus lies on Paudel to take measures to develop the institution in line with the constitutional provisions. He should clean the legacy left behind by his predecessors and lead the Office of the President by example—free from controversy and always within the constitutional limits.