Conflicting interestsNepal’s new Council of Ministers includes 16 new faces, some with conflicts of interest
Nepal’s Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal added 12 new ministers and three new state ministers and one deputy prime minister to his Council of Ministers on Tuesday, ending weeks of haggling with not just his seven coalition partners, but also the Nepali Congress which wanted a quid-pro-quo for its support of the government in Parliament.
The country now has four Deputy Prime Ministers: UML lawmaker and Finance Minister Bishnu Poudel, senior Maoist Centre leader and Minister of Physical Infrastructure and Transport Narayan Kaji Shrestha, Rastriya Swatantra Party (RSP) chair and Home Minister Rabi Lamichhane, and newly-appointed Minister of Energy, Water Resources and Irrigation Rajendra Lingden of the Rastriya Prajatantra Party (RPP).
The Prime Minister has filled 23 cabinet positions, but he has retained the Ministry of Forests and Environment as well as the Ministry of Youth and Sports for himself for now. Of the 23, 16 are first-time ministers.
The UML, which wooed Dahal away from his alliance with the NC last month now has eight ministers. They include Finance Minister Poudel, National Assembly member and Foreign Affairs Minister Bimala Rai Paudyal, Health Minister Padam Giri, Defence Minister Hari Prasad Upreti, Minister of Agriculture and Livestock Development Jwala Kumari Sah, Minister of Industry, Commerce and Supplies Damodar Bhandari, Minister of Land Management, Cooperatives and Poverty Alleviation Rajendra Kumar Rai and Minister for Women, Children and Senior Citizens Bhagwati Chaudhary.
The Maoist Centre has six cabinet members including Prime Minister Dahal and Minister of Physical Infrastructure and Transport Shrestha, Communication Minister Rekha Sharma, Tourism Minister Sudan Kirati, Federal Affairs and General Administration Minister Aman Lal Modi and Sushila Sirpali Thakuri, who was appointed the State Minister for Tourism.
The RSP’s Rabi Lamichhane was already Home Minister, and has added lawmakers Dol Prasad Aryal, Shishir Khanal, and Toshima Karki as Labour Minister, Education Minister, and State Minister for Health respectively.
RPP chair Rajendra Lingden is Energy Minister, while his party’s Dhruba Bahadur Pradhan is Law Minister, Bikram Pandey is Minister for Urban Development, and Dipak Bahadur Singh is the State Minister of Energy.
As soon as the new Cabinet positions were announced, however, there was outrage from commentators and discontent within Dahal’s seven-party governing alliance.
Janamat received just one portfolio, with its lawmaker Abdul Khan appointed the Minister of Water Supply. However, Khan refused to take the oath of office on Tuesday over his party’s dissatisfaction with having been denied the Ministry of Industry, Commerce and Supplies as previously promised by Dahal.
Meanwhile, the JSP also refused to take offered ministerial positions over the distribution of cabinet as well as constitutional appointments. The party had wanted three ministerial portfolios, including the Ministry of Urban Development.
From the general public there was serious concern about conflict of interest of the new appointees. For example, RPP lawmaker Bikram Pandey, the newly-inducted Minister of Urban Development, is Chairman and Managing Director of Kalika Construction, which has several ongoing government infrastructure contracts. Pandey had been accused of corruption, and was subsequently acquitted.
New Labour Minister Dol Prasad Aryal from the RSP is the International Marketing Director at Shristi Overseas Employment Services, a recruitment agency. The agency was among 41 manpower companies to be investigated for illegal acquisition of wealth by the Department of Money Laundering Investigation in 2020. Aryal is also listed as the CEO and director of the money transfer service Easylink Remittance.
These questions are being asked even before the controversy surrounding Rabi Lamichhane’s earlier appointment as Home Minister had died down. He was appointed home minister and deputy prime minister even as he was being investigated over his Nepali and US citizenship.
Tv personality Vijay Kumar Panday took to social media to criticise the media for raising concerns about conflict of interest. He wrote:
‘Before raising the question of conflict of interest in appointing new ministers, owners and editors of Nepal’s media organisations should answer — how many media company owners are involved in other fields of business, and is it not a conflict of interest for such media to report on those businesses?’
On Tuesday, the Prime Minister presided over an all-party meeting called to express his gratitude to Nepal’s top political leadership for giving him the vote of confidence. NC chair Sher Bahadur Deuba and CPN-Unified Socialist chair Madhav Kumar Nepal were also present.
During the meeting floated the possibility of giving the NC constitutional appointments, to the displeasure of coalition leaders, who maintained that the alliance had already come to an agreement over the positions of President, Vice-president, House Speaker, and Deputy Speaker. The seven-party coalition had previously decided to give the post of president and speaker to the UML, deputy speaker to RSP and vice-president to the Maoist Centre.
Oli walked out of the meeting shortly after Dahal called for consensus over constitutional appointments.
For his part, Deuba said coyly that his party was “open to receiving” constitutional positions. The NC’s Ramesh Lekhak said: “We are ready to discuss the matter of constitutional appointments from our position as an objective opposition with a duty to defend the Constitution.”
Parliament is is session on Thursday for the appointment of a new House Speaker. On Wednesday morning, a meeting of top UML leadership at K P Oli's residence in Balkot finalised senior leader Devraj Ghimire as the candidate of the Speaker.
Meanwhile, the NC has also decided to field lawmaker Ishwari Devi Neupane as its party’s candidate for Speaker following a meeting of the top leadership at Dhumbarahi on Wednesday morning.
The party decided on a candidate after holding talks with the Prime Minister as well as other parties not in government.
Candidates will need a simple majority of 138 votes to be elected speaker.
The big question now is which of the two parties will get to appoint the new president to succeed Bidya Devi Bhandari, who was nominated by the UML after 2017.