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A creeping authoritarianism

Despite a new legislature, Nepal's chief justice looks set to continue as executive head.

As politics gets a little crystallised, Nepal’s Constituent Assembly will sit, finally, on January 22, 65 days after the House was elected. After a bitter row over who would summon the House, President Ram Baran Yadav gave in, and Chief Justice-cum-Chairman of the Council of Ministers Khil Raj Regmi exercised the constitutionally assigned role. But the tussle between the head of state and the head of government demonstrated that an usually grim-faced Regmi, quite used to maintaining silence on even the most critical issues, could openly defy the president.

The president’s ignominious defeat may not have come under public scrutiny had he not openly lobbied for it, telling party heads that the interim constitution’s provision — assigning the duty of summoning the House to the PM — was introduced when the monarchy was in suspension and G.P. Koirala acted as both head of government and state. But it should now come to the head of state as per practices of parliamentary democracy elsewhere. Most politicians seemed to agree with the president, but it is evident that Regmi, by virtue of his continuance as CJ, would have a weightier say on constitutional matters.

Five-time PM and octogenarian Surya Bahadur Thapa, the seniormost member, will act as the pro-tem speaker and administer the oath to members. Regmi will address members and there will be messages from different states congratulating the Nepalese people and the Regmi led government for the successful conduct of the polls. After all, the electoral government was the idea of the international community.

But there are new fears now, felt by the country and the major parties that had earlier endorsed the CJ-led government. “It was a mistake on our part to have a CJ as the chief of government,” Maoist chief Prachanda said recently. A European ambassador confided the international community did not anticipate the judiciary would be so “servile” to the CJ-led executive. The Nepali Congress, the largest party that hopes to lead the coalition, is understandably upset as it wanted the president to summon the House. In fact, Regmi has a clear hold on the apex court that has either dismissed or delayed justice in the case of almost all petitions challenging his appointment. The court has also maintained a similar stance on major decisions taken by the Regmi government. There are speculations about why the president gave in. Lawyers and members of the Bar openly argue that since a PIL that seeks fresh elections to the posts of president and vice president is pending, a confrontation with Regmi may have cost the president dearly.

The major parties have not yet elected their parliamentary leaders because of internal feuds, and that is likely to delay government formation till the end of the session. That will be convenient for Regmi to continue as executive head, since his wish to return to the apex court for the remaining three months of his tenure may not be smooth, given the Bar’s opposition. So January 22 onwards, Regmi will continue as a politically endorsed authoritarian figure with the executive, legislature and judiciary all under him. His legitimacy comes not from the constitution or democratic practice, but from the endorsement of the international community.

When former king Gyanendra assumed executive power in 2005, the judiciary had remained independent. When the Maoists and pro-democracy parties launched a joint movement against the royal takeover, G.P. Koirala acted as head of both government and state. The judiciary was still independent. But Regmi’s heading of all three organs of state is a dangerous drift for democracy in Nepal. Each drift and dilution of democratic norms create ever more dangerous precedents. A servile judiciary is something beyond the democratic imagination.

 yubaraj.ghimire@expressindia.com

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