Statute Amendment Proposal Risk Of Horse-trading In Parliament
Ritu Raj Subedi
As the date for local elections approaches, the Nepalese political parties are bracing for a constitutional battle. The government has decided to put the fresh constitution amendment proposal to a vote today (Sunday) amidst a strong protest of the opposition. It decries that the contents of amendment are regressive and anti-nationalistic. Whether it will be endorsed or rejected by the parliament, it has already led the nation down a slippery slope. The discordant contents of amendment have implanted a feeling of social, political and territorial division in the psyche of the Nepalese people. Visibly, it smacks of pernicious geopolitical interests, disdain for grassroots democracy and disregard of election codes. The bickering over the amendment has poured cold water on the election momentum necessary to boost the participation of overwhelming number of voters in the ballot.
A can of worms
The first obvious danger is that it may open up a can of worms. We have a jumbo hung parliament with no party commanding a majority. The ruling coalition, a mélange of parties from ultra-left to ultra-right, falls short of a two-thirds needed to approve the Bill registered to meet the demands of regional/ethnic Madhesi parties and bring them to election. With a tussle between the ruling and opposition parties to endorse and scuttle it at all cost, a disgusting horse-trading is set in motion. The reports that the ruling alliance has already made a crack in the opposition front led by the UML, are pouring in. The government has claimed that three lawmakers from opposition camp have decided to vote for the amendment proposal. Nepal Pariwar Dal chairman and lawmaker Eknath Dhakal has shifted his allegiance and announced that he would cast vote for the amendment proposal so as to give a way out to the nation. Until a few days ago, Dhakal had argued that the UML’s stance against the amendment was in the interest of the nation. His volte-face has raised the eyebrows of many.
With the announcement of poll, it is imperative for the government to extend all possible support to the Election Commission to implement the election code of conduct in letter and spirit. But the government’s decision to approve the statute amendment bill, unveil the fiscal budget two weeks ahead of the second round of election and hold the polls in two phases has called its motive into question. These issues have become very tricky, casting doubt on the prospect of a free, fair, impartial and peaceful election. No policy level decision should come once the polls are declared. Such a step will swing the public mood in favour of particular parties.
Realising that these decisions will affect the impartiality of election, a group of reputed persons, including former EC chiefs and legal experts other day urged the incumbent EC officials to strictly enforce the code of conduct and reject the arbitrary steps of the government. They have taken serious exception to the amendment bid. “The statute is the main law of the land. The fairness of election comes into question when the statute amendment causes a political benefit or loss. This demands that the EC play its active role effectively to implement the code of conduct that is not a matter of choice but a mandatory provision,” they said in their memorandum submitted to the EC. These individuals include former chief election commissioners Dr Surya Prasad Shrestha and Nilkantha Uprety, former president of Constitutional Committee under the first Constituent Assembly Nilambar Acharya, former chairman of District Development Federation Krishna Prasad Sapkota, constitutional law expert Dr Bipin Adhikary and local self-governance experts Dr Hikmat Bista, Dr Mukti Rijal and Dr Shyam Bhurtel.
They have also pointed out to another potential pitfall arising from the two rounds of elections. The government announced to hold the local polls in Province No. 1, 2, 5 and 7 at an interval of one month after the first round of poll slated for May 14. This is for allotting 10-day time for the addition of new voters to the voters’ list in the above provinces. But, this arrangement will violate the principle of equal voting right of the people living in Province No 3, 4, and 6. “This double standard employed to the people of different provinces is unacceptable. The provision to bring the government policies and programmes, and annual budget between the two phases of polls amounts to the violation of the code of conduct. There will be a risk of tipping the scales in the favour of ruling parties in the election. Thus, we disagree on holding the polls in two phases,” they said.
The statute amendment proposal seeks to ensure the all-acceptability of the national charter by bringing the recalcitrant Madhesi forces on board. However, this lopsided approach has triggered a pertinent question: How can the statute become all-acceptable by excluding the main opposition, UML, and its allies from the amendment process? It will be another stupidity to keep out around 35 per cent out of the entire amendment process for the sake of fulfilling the interest of less than 10 per cent forces represented in the parliament. The UML argues that the amendment seeks to recognize Hindi as national language, bypass the central and provincial parliaments while fixing the boundaries of provinces and further relax the laws to obtain naturalised citizenship. The constitution is a document of broader compromise aimed at uniting the society, not splitting it. It should have rational cohesive elements based on the ‘general will’ and a national vision essential to enable the citizenry to lead a decent, happy and affluent life.