Sitting Chief Justice May Lead Nepal Government

130215-111259Khil Raj Regmi, the sitting Chief Justice of Nepal, may lead a new government to conduct the second election of the Constituent Assembly (CA). On Thursday evening, leaders of the major political parties have publicly admitted that in principle, they have reached a consensus.

The ruling United Communist Party of Nepal (UCPN) Maoist initially advocated this proposal on the first week of this month. Since then Nepali politics have stirred people and entered into a fiery new phase. Citizens took it as a benign political gesture to end the deadlock after the CA was dissolved last May.

Indeed, it was a most surprising proposal from a radical communist party – that until several days ago was making grand claims to run the government for another ten years. The party has yet to renounce violence for its political ends and that has continuously been deriding the very idea of independence of judiciary.

It would be a positive development if such a party insisted on “an impartial government to conduct free and fair elections” of the CA. However, some commentators are not convinced on the sincerity of the ruling coalition led by Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai.

This has led opposition parties in a state of considerable confusion. They could not reject it outright because ample evidence has demonstrated that since the dawn of democracy in 1950 and under various rule and misrule ever since, Nepal’s judiciary has remained independent and stood by the justice and dignity of the people. Even before 1950, Nepali rulers considered justice as the soul of the state and governance.

For eight months when the three major parties including the United Communist Party (Maoist), the Nepali Congress and Nepal Communist Party (UML) could not reach an agreement on forming a new government, the Chief Justice could become a consensus candidate to head the government to conduct free and fair elections.

However, stronger dissension exists among a wider section of Nepali society.

They have stressed that after the insistence of Maoist leaders that the Chief Justice will lead both the executive and judiciary; it could create political complications and the dignity of the justice.

Commoners, legal experts and influential junior leaders from opposition parties have considered it a grave conspiracy against democracy. Moreover, they have interpreted it as a grand design of the Maoists to control both the government and judiciary from behind and tear down the principles of separation of powers that stands against a committed judiciary.

They have reasons to distrust the new Maoist proposal. Just a few days ago, the country was badly shaken when people confronted with new evidence of Maoist brutality and inhuman killing of a journalist in a remote western district of Dailekh. One of the murderers had openly admitted that during the so-called peoples’ war, a journalist named Dekendra Thapa was buried alive.

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Prime Minister Bhattarai ordered the junior officials to close the files against Maoist cadres that were involved in the murder of Thapa. Immediately thereafter, the Supreme Court had summoned the Prime Minister on the charge of contempt of court. Therefore, people have seen how Maoist and even the Prime Minister provide protection for Maoist leaders convicted on murder, theft and arson charges.

Four years ago, Nepal had elected a CA to write a new constitution. It was elected for two years and had raised exhilarated enthusiasm among many citizens. However, when it could not deliver a constitution even after four years, the CA was dissolved under popular pressure against its senseless political gimmickry of the 600 plus CA members. They repeatedly extended its term. When at last the Supreme Court delivered its verdict over the unconstitutionality of its extended terms, the house was unceremoniously dissolved. Following the dissolution of the CA, the President had declared a caretaker government.

Before the dissolution of the CA, Bhattarai’s government had declared the election of a new CA on November 22, 2012. However, the constitution has maintained no provision for when the CA fails to issue a constitution in a given time. Similarly, after the dissolution of the CA, no constitutional authority existed to change the Prime Minister and to amend the existing constitution.

Therefore, what Nepal is facing today is not just a grave political crisis but a frightening constitutional crisis. The crisis cannot be resolved until the constitution is violated and once it is violated, it will open floodgates of constitutional infringement. A legitimacy crisis will be among the most critical of concerns and events that follow may end in another round of chaos and anarchy.

After the monarchy was abolished in May 2008, the head of state in Nepal has been a President. The Prime Minister carries out all the executive functions of the country. The major political parties are demanding the ouster of the Prime Minister for several months, but in the absence of a constitutional authority, they are legally helpless. On this backdrop, they either have to accept the options proposed by the UCPN (Maoist) and face the impending dangers underlying it or go to the street against the government – a journey more unsafe and dangerous.

Keshav Prasad Bhattarai writes for Eurasia Review. He is the former President of Nepal Teachers’ Association, Teachers’ Union of Nepal and General Secretary of SAARC Teachers’ Federation. He worked as a columnist in an English language weekly from Nepal – The Reporter and has authored three books.