The tug-of-war between President and Prime Minister

Kamal Dev Bhattarai

Kamal Dev Bhattarai

The tug-of-war between President and Prime Minister

Constitutional expert Bipin Adhikari warns that the trust deficit between Sheetal Niwas and Baluwatar could be deleterious to political stability

The relations between heads of state and governments of Nepal were never smooth between 1990 and 2008.

The erstwhile kings exercised their substantial discretionary powers to make or break governments, while wantonly undermining the principle of check and balance.

Nepal became a republic in 2008 after overthrowing the 240-year-old monarchy. A ceremonial president replaced the monarch as the head of state.

The president was expected to play a complementary role for smooth functioning of government. But the relationship between the president’s office and government morphed into something more twisted.

Some constitutional experts and political analysts say the decision of political parties to pick a presidential candidate from among themselves has not worked well for the country.  They say the Office of the President is caught in partisanship. 

“There must be a harmonious relationship between the president’s office and government for effective functioning of the parliamentary system,” says constitutional expert Bipin Adhikari.

It did not take long for the relationship between the president and prime minister of the newly republic Nepal to unravel.

The first president was a former Nepali Congress leader, Ram Baran Yadav, and occupying the executive chair was Pushpa Kamal Dahal, a former Maoist rebel leader whose party had just entered peaceful politics.

In 2009, Dahal stepped down following a dispute with Yadav over the unceremonious sacking of the then Nepal Army chief, Rookmangud Katawal.

Yadav’s presidency lasted until 2015. He was succeeded by current President Bidya Devi Bhandari, a former CPN-UML leader.

Bhandari’s presidency has been a more fraught one than her predecessor.

During the premiership of UML chair KP Oli from 2018 to 2021, there was a semblance of cordiality between the offices of the prime minister and the president. But it became apparent that this harmony was born out of President Bhandari’s allegiance to her former party and its leader.

The Office of the President came under public and media scrutiny for swiftly endorsing any decision taken by the KP Oli administration, no matter how unpopular or out of line including the one to dissolve the democratically elected House of Representatives. 

And when the Supreme Court ousted Oli as the prime minister and appointed Deuba to the post in July 2021, the President was reportedly unhappy with the verdict. She was of the view that as the head of the state, the responsibility of appointing a new prime minister was her jurisdiction.

Then there was a dispute over the text of the oath that had failed to mention the constitutional provision under which Deuba was appointed. 

The current issue on the bill to Citizenship Act has once again pitted the Office of the President against the government after President Bhandari sent back the bill to the federal parliament, asking to reconsider some of its provisions.

The back and forth of the bill between Parliament and the Office of the President has raised concerns about Bhandari’s motive. She has, to date, refused to authenticate the bill passed by both houses of Parliament.    

There are rumors that the President’s action or lack thereof concerning the citizenship amendment bill is guided by the main opposition, UML.  The ruling five-party alliance has threatened to move court if Bhandari refuses to approve the bill. 

Tika Dhakal, an advisor to Bhandari, says the President had sent back the citizenship amendment bill to Parliament and not the executive, as she had some concerns regarding some of the provisions.

“First, the five-party meeting in Baluwatar snubbed the President’s concerns before the President’s concerns were formally registered in the Parliament Secretariat,” says Dhakal. “Then Parliament too made the mistake by not addressing the President’s concerns.”

The Office of the President is of the view that Article 81 of the constitution obliges the government to inform vital decisions to the President.

Dhakal says Prime Minister Deuba did not honor the constitutional provision of informing the President about the bill. 

“The Office of the Prime Minister also did not consult with the President on the transitional justice bill,” adds Dhakal. “The President had to invite Law Minister Govinda Bandi to get a briefing on the bill.”

But constitutional expert Adhikari says President Bhandari cannot hold private meetings with ministers or any other officials of the state agencies without first consulting the prime minister. 

“Yes, the constitution compels the executive to appraise the head of state on vital national issues..”

Reports are that President Bhandari has several disagreements with the current dispensation. The issue of the citizenship amendment bill is the one that has spilled out in public. 

Dhakal, however, argues that there is a clear distinction between a bill and an ordinance, which the media and political parties failed to tell the public.

“While the President cannot delay the authentication of an ordinance because it should be presented in Parliament within two months and the people’s elected body takes a final decision,” he says. “The President, however, has the right to send back a bill to Parliament for reconsideration.”

Another official at the Office of the President agrees that Bhandari has not blocked the ordinance forwarded by the government.

“When the Deuba government came up with the ordinance allowing a political split if there is the support of just 20 percent of its central committee members, President Bhandari endorsed it without any qualms because she was constitutionally obliged to do so.”

Adhikari warns that the trust deficit between the head of state and government will be deleterious to the country’s stability.

“In parliamentary democracy, it is the decision of the executive that prevails.”

 He adds if the President has any thoughts, opinions, or issues on any matter, it should be shared with the prime minister, while the latter should also do the same.