Ending the Stalemate

Written by Muhammad Omar Iftikhar  •  Region  •  May 2013 PDF Print E-mail

Leaders in Nepal have elected Chief Justice Khil Raj Regmi as the interim Prime Minister. Perhaps he can play a role in bringing democracy back to Nepal.

Nepal has been facing a political deadlock since May 2010 when Prime Minister Baburam Bhattaria dissolved the Constituent Assembly after it failed to formulate the constitution. This ended four doubtful years of drafting a constitution. Political quarters called for the government to formulate a new constitution and hold elections at the earliest. With leaders unable to agree upon a prime minister and with the political and legal vacuum looming over Nepal, President Ram Baran Yadav swore in Chief Justice Khil Raj Regmi as the new prime minister in March to lead the interim government.

This is the first time in Nepalese political history that a sitting Chief Justice has become the head of the government. Chief Justice Regmi will serve dual posts as the Prime Minister and the Chief Justice of Nepal until elections take place on June 21. The elected members of the legislature will also function as the Constituent Assembly with the task of formulating a new constitution.

Nepal’s future remains bleak even with Chief Justice Regmi now serving as the interim Prime Minister. The major political parties have their reservations regarding Regmi’s rise to premiership; many consider it an unconstitutional move. The President of the Nepal Bar Association, Hari Krishna Karki, argued that appointing Justice Regmi was against the principles of constitutionalism and separation of powers in a democracy. A separatist Maoist faction called for a general strike against Justice Regmi’s appointment and protestors clashed with the police outside the presidential palace while he was taking his oath of office. Former lawmakers of the previous Constituent Assembly also feel that the Khila Raj Regmi-led election government is non-political. The CPN-Maoist led alliance is also pressing for the formation of a consensus government. Moreover, the opposition believes that the appointment of Justice Regmi will only disturb the political structure of the country whose future already hangs in the balance. Political factions have filed legal challenges in the court regarding the legality of the Chief Justice serving simultaneously as the Prime Minister.

The current political vacuum in Nepal dates back to 2008 when the country abolished the 239-year-old monarchy and the political parties went into a tussle over the formulation of a new constitution. In May 2010, the then Prime Minister, Baburam Bhattarai  dissolved the Constituent Assembly after it was not able to decide how much power the country’s regions would enjoy in the post-monarchy era and was unable to write a constitution.

Caught in the midst of political transition, it might take a few years before Kathmandu can adapt to this political change and work as the capital of a federal republic. However, with Chief Justice Regmi in power, analysts predict that the judiciary will take an active part in preparing the constitution.

Numerous politicians and legislators believe that the much-awaited constitution will finally take shape and end the political deadlock that has created confusion among political parties. However, politicians opposing Justice Regmi as the premier, say that since the Prime Minister truly runs the government, Justice Regmi might exercise his powers in the functioning of the state - a possibility that could seriously destabilize the country. However, members of the ruling Maoist party were the first to suggest that Justice Regmi should get the interim post and they believe that only Regmi can bring Nepal out of its many predicaments.

Nepal’s political history has played a key role in keeping democratic forces at bay.  Following the end of the civil war in 2006, the Maoists became a recognized political party that guaranteed to promote the peace process and elections, formulate a constitution, abolish Nepal’s monarchy and integrate the national armed forces with the Maoist rebel army. However, the newborn federal set-up of the country swayed the government from functioning properly where the division of power between regions led to political stifling among major parties. Elections, which were set to take place in November 2012, were consequently deferred to June 2013.

The political parties of Nepal have reached a consensus on four key issues with the newly formed interim government. These include forming a Truth and Reconciliation Commission for providing transitional justice, promoting Maoist combatants included in the Nepal army to the post of Colonel and Lt. Colonel, updating the voters’ list before the Constituent Assembly elections and resolving the issues of citizenship certificate distribution.

Although elections are set to take place on June 21, political parties might postpone them until December if the situation remains unfavorable. The President of the Nepali Congress, Sushil Koirala, is certain that the government, led by the Chief Justice, would resolve the political impasse and strengthen democracy in Nepal. The Nepalese politicians who support Justice Regmi are of the view that a fresh election mandate will preserve the democratic process and ensure people’s participation. In addition, major parties such as the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist) (CPN UML), and the Nepali Congress have agreed to write a constitution to replace the interim government.

Regmi, who is also the Chairman of the Interim Election Council, has big shoes to fill if he is eyeing free and independent polls. If his tenure does not usher in democracy in Nepal, there is a fair chance that the country might lose confidence in the judiciary – a situation that no political party wants.

Although Khil Raj Regmi is facing opposition from Nepalese leaders and former lawmakers, the West, including the U.S, UN and the UK has welcomed his appointment. If the U.S and the UN are satisfied with Regmi’s new role as Prime Minister, then the international community is in favor of Nepal becoming a federal republic and wishes to see Nepal leave behind its history of monarchy-based government for good. 

Muhammad Omar Iftikhar is Assistant Editor at SouthAsia. He writes on issues and social activism.

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