Wednesday, 20 October marked 100 days since Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba assumed office, for the fifth time in his political career, and head of a 5-party coalition.
Soon after his appointment in July, now Defence Minister Minendra Rijal of the Nepali Congress (NC) was scathing in his criticism of the preceding K P Oli government. He told a House session: “The Nepali people will now finally see for themselves how a government is actually supposed to function.”
Nepalis have certainly seen first-hand how the coalition government has functioned, although not in a way Rijal meant it. Rather, this ‘honeymoon period’ has been characterised by failures and incompetence.
It took Deuba a full 88 days to even fill Cabinet positions, as he attempted to reach a power-sharing agreement and divide ministerial portfolios within his political alliance.
To be sure, not all the blame lies at Deuba’s doorstep. Coalition partners haggled with each other, and factions within the governing parties competed for quotas and plum ministerial berths.
In order to keep his coalition intact, the prime minister’s first order of business was to prorogue Parliament in the midst of a budget debate so that he could issue an ordinance that would allow his ally Madhav Kumar Nepal to form a new party and join his coalition.
Earlier this year, Deuba had been fiercely critical when K P Oli also dissolved Parliament in an unsuccessful attempt to pass a similar ordinance, and instigate early elections. Deuba came out looking hypocritical at best.
“This government chose to repeat the mistakes of its predecessor, the very ones that it deemed unconstitutional and undemocratic,” notes economist Keshav Acharya.
The farce did not end there: Deuba then repealed the ordinance after it became an albatross around his neck as Nepal and the other coalition partner, the Janata Samajbadi Party, feared it would lead to further splits.
The Cabinet expansion, when it did happen, ignited criticism from media, legal, and political spheres after news emerged that Chief Justice Cholendra SJB Rana wanted two of his nominees to be awarded ministries. Deuba appointed the Chief Justice’s brother-in-law Gajendra Hamal, an unelected NC member, as the Industry, Commerce and Supplies Minister.
If Deuba’s precious misdemeanours were tolerated, Hamal’s appointment was seen by many as crossing the line on the separation of powers and led to a public outcry and outrage on media. Hamal resigned three days later.
“The fact that the leadership was unable to form a full Cabinet in time just confirmed to the public their worst perception towards the leadership,” adds Acharya.
Contrary to its commitment to transparency, the government has continued to grant public appointments to party-affiliated candidates, some of whom are under investigation for professional discrepancies. Twelve of Nepal’s ambassadors were abruptly recalled in September, even those who had been relatively successful.
The disarray in the coalition has brought important policy decisions as well as economic activities to a complete standstill. Dozens of important bills are stuck in Parliament. The federal civil service bill, which was supposed to be passed three years ago, has been withdrawn, and the Milennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) ratification is stuck.
“None of the promises made before and during the formation of the government has been fulfilled yet,” says former Finance Secretary Rameshore Khanal, “it looks very much as though the government is yet to find its feet.”
Indeed, the prime minister has not even been able to appoint members to his own secretariat, and remains without economic, political, and foreign affairs advisers. Appointed ministers have failed to disclose their financial assets, as required by law.
Even the decisions the government has finally taken have proven to be controversial – like the amendment to the budget that make it easier for money laundering by not requiring source of income for investors.
Moreover, the failure to reach a consensus within the parties on issues of national importance, such as the budget, led to a government shutdown for the first time in the 71-year history of Nepal’s budget.
According to the Office of the Comptroller and Auditor General, only 3.42% of the government’s development-targeted capital expenditure has been used during the first three months of the current fiscal year, down from 4.28% during the last fiscal year. Nepal’s ‘national pride projects’ are affected even as infrastructure damaged by this monsoon’s devastating floods need to be urgently repaired.
“The government has no roadmap for how to function,” says Kishor Thapa of Bibeksheel Sajha Party, “and bureaucracy cannot function in a leadership vacuum.”
Prime Minister Deuba, in an interview in state-run Gorkhapatra said that the United States was ready to amend the MCC agreement to upgrade Nepal’s electricity transmission lines and highways. However, the project has become a victim of political infighting and geopolitics, and even threatens the coalition.
Foreign policy has been another disaster. There have been no active attempts to address Nepal’s border disputes with India, and no investigation into the disappearance of a young Nepali man on the Mahakali border river. Instead, Deuba unnecessarily angered Beijing by setting up a committee to look into a long-settled border issue with China.
With the 2022/23 elections a little over a year away, Deuba needs to improve performance if his NC is to get more votes this time. In fact, Deuba seems to be so nervous about this that he is batting for early elections.
“This opportunity to form a government was pure luck,” a close Deuba aide admitted candidly, “so no clear goals or directions had been set at the time of government formation, there was and has been only confusion.”
One of Deuba’s only success stories so far has been the Covid vaccination drive — 30% of the eligible population has been fully vaccinated so far, while 39% have received the first dose. China has promised a further 2 million vaccine doses.
Former government secretary Krishna Gyawali sums up the first 100 days: “The leadership has been unable to make bold political decisions and reforms. While this government does not seem to have made things worse than the previous one, it certainly hasn’t done anything to make things better either.”
Translated by Shristi Karki from the original in www.himalkhabar.com.