In response to President Bidya Devi Bhandari’s call for the formation of a government under Article 76 (5) of the Constitution, the Leader of the Opposition Sher Bahadur Deuba and Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli submitted separate claims on 21 May to her of commanding a majority of parliamentarians.
Deuba had the claim of support of 149 MPs while PM Oli had 153. It is not possible that there would be two majorities in the House of Representatives (HoR), and with the President rejecting both claims, the main question right now rests on the interpretation of Article 76 (5).
While the basis on which the Head of State reached the conclusion is a matter of her judicial discretion which cannot be questioned in court, it is nevertheless important to interpret and understand Article 76 (5) holistically, given the national importance of a prime minister’s election.
In order to fully grasp the basis of the President’s decision, it is important to go into the text of Article 76 (5): ‘In case where the Prime Minister appointed under Clause (3) fails to obtain a vote of confidence under Clause (4) and any member under Clause (2) presents the ground on which he or she can obtain a vote of confidence in the House of Representatives, the President shall appoint such member as Prime Minister.’
Under the Constitution, therefore, this article requires four preconditions to be clearly fulfilled before a decision is made:
FIRST, the results from the application of Clause (4). While applying this clause, PM KP Sharma Oli sent a written letter to the President stating that as he did not have the numbers to obtain vote of confidence under existing circumstances, he recommended issuing the call under Clause (5) for the formation of new government. With the Prime Minister’s recommendation following from his Cabinet’s decision, the President had no choice but to make the call.
The opposition parties in the HoR initially criticised the recommendation of the Prime Minister and demanded he should rather have gone for a floor test. But then the leader of the opposition Deuba laid claim to government with 149 members under the President’s call under 76 (5) as recommended by the Prime Minister. PM Oli then also laid claim to government, saying he had the support of 153 members.
What we see thus is a majority in HoR recognising activation of Clause (4) by default and the prime minister’s inability to gain confidence of the House. If that were not the case, there would not have been the condition for the claims of both candidates to be considered under Article 76 (5). Thus, there we see unanimous acceptance of the fact that the Supreme Court’s 23 February 2021 decision requiring the House to proceed through the application of Clauses (1), (2), (3), (4) and (5) had been followed to the letter. The political parties have themselves resolved the debate around this matter by participating in the call by the president.
SECOND, the candidature for prime ministership under Article 76 (5) should be of a member of the HoR under Clause (2). This clause specifies, ‘any member of the House who can get a majority with the support of two or more than two parties’ may present the basis for obtaining the House of Representatives’ vote of confidence.
When read in the context of Article 76 (5), any House member, not necessarily the parliamentary party leaders of larger parties, who presents basis for gaining vote of confidence can be appointed prime minister. Under the process guided by these constitutional provisions, there can be no doubt that the support of political parties to such a candidate is a necessity.
This aspect is evident in Deuba’s claim being supported by the Nepali Congress and CPN (Maoist Centre) along their party lines. In the case of PM Oli’s claim, however, the support of both the CPN (UML) party which he leads as well as the Janata Samajbadi Party is divided, denting his claim. His claim of majority is therefore subject to disapproval.
THIRD, the prime question is whether the signatures or support of MPs during the process under Article 76 (5) that go against the decision of their parties are to be given validity. While the Deuba’s claim is based on an independent position taken by 38 MPs of the UML and JSP combined, the President appears to have accorded recognition to all members of the House.
The president could have rejected the application at the first instance, using her privilege of office. Deuba’s claim was allowed to be registered following due process by the president herself.
It was not possible to reject the application by Prime Mnister Oli because his claim included the decision of the parties concerned and the name-list of MPs by party. It was not unnatural for the two sides to place applications, given that the JSP as a party which had earlier decided to remain neutral had changed its decision at the last minute and to participate in the process under 76 (5).
FOURTH, the application under Article 76 (5) made before the President for appointment as prime minister requires placing ‘the basis (आधार) to be able to win a vote of confidence’. What this means is that the President will have to have confidence that the prime minister appointed under Article 76 (5) is able to win the confidence vote within 30 days pursuant to Article 76 (4).
In other words, regardless of the claims of a candidate to majority support at the time of application, the president’s concern would be to see if there is basis for the candidate winning a confidence vote within 30 days. As the defender of the Constitution and seeking stability for the polity, it would be natural for President Bhandari to see the verifiability of a claim to majority within the time frame of 30 days as stipulated in the Constitution.
When there is no debate on the matter, there would be no questioning claims of a candidate of the support of MPs, whether numbering 149 or 153. They both are majority numbers. But in the current instance, both applications to the President were contentious. Further, the president had been formally informed in writing that some MPs of the CPN (UML) and JSP have supported the application of another party, and that those two parties were to carry out disciplinary actions against those Members of Parliament.
Given that the law on political parties stipulates clearly that the parliamentary procedure for the suspension or ouster of MPs can take no more than 15 days, it becomes clear that neither list before the President was likely to remain intact by the time the vote of confidence was sought within the 30-day stipulation. Thus, the president was unable to give her assent to either application.
Can party MPs vote independently?
It is important to understand here that while MPs may try to go outside the bounds set by their parties, the Constitution and law relating to political parties and associated regulations provide strong basis for the parties to keep their MPs in check and under party discipline.
There is no existing law or constitutional provision that allows us to choose between what action by an MP attracts party disciplinary measures and what does not. There is no basis to the argument that the disciplinary action against MPs may not be applied selectively for certain clauses of the Constitution. In essence, the political parties are sovereign in their ability to ensure party discipline in Parliament under any and every circumstance.
MPs must make a choice between party affiliation and independent vote, and choosing the latter course they have to be subject to discipline for defying the party whip. Voting outside the party decision can mean expulsion from the party, which would ipso facto mean vacating the parliamentary seat in the House. The Maoist Centre has already utilised this authority over its representatives by ousting several members in both the houses of the Federal Parliament and in provincial parliaments.
According to the existing system, and as clearly spelt out in the Constitution and the law on political parties, MPs of nationally recognised parties are able to vote of their own volition only when electing the leader of their parliamentary party. Otherwise, in every sphere and activity, MPs are bound by his/her party’s decisions and directives. This principle was seen applied clearly during the proceeding of the just-dissolved HoR last year, when MP Sarita Giri’s seat was instantaneously revoked when she defied her party whip.
The process of disciplinary action leading to expulsion is fairly simple. If a request has been formally made by a party to revoke an MP’s membership in the House, the parliamentary secretariat may take no more than 15 days to implement that notice. It should also be noted that other than cases filed in the courts on corruption and specific criminal offences, disciplinary actions against MPs are the prerogative of their parties.
Difference between JSP and UML ‘independents’
Given that the JSP has a structure with two chairpersons, decisions to support or to take action under the party’s constitution require the agreement of both and hence may not be immediately implementable. For this reason, Deuba may get the benefit of doubt. JSP’s case here is exactly like that of the erstwhile NCP, about which the Election Commission could not take decisions because of the party’s statute requiring consensus between its two chairpersons. The JSP independents therefore may weigh in for Mr. Deuba.
However, there would be no confusion in the case of the CPN (UML) dissidents. The President was officially informed before she took her decision that the chair and parliamentary party leader of the CPN (UML) was in a position to act immediately against the MPs who had gone against the party’s decision. This referred to the fact that UML’s 26 MPs who supported Deuba’s application had already breached their party whip on 10 May by abstention during the vote of confidence Prime Minister Oli had sought.
Breach of party whip is one of the several legal conditions for vacating the seat of an MP. Existing laws and party statutes provide this right to all political parties. It thus appears that the list presented by Deuba was clearly fragmented and his claim of majority would have fallen short within the 30-day stipulated timeframe. There was no reason to be confident that the number presented by Deuba would remain intact until the required vote of confidence on the floor of the House.
Both claimants, or either one of them, could have thought he would win the vote of confidence after the president appointed him prime minister but before the disciplinary procedure of the relevant party was activated. Or, one or other candidate could have hoped to have the Speaker of Parliament show indulgence and ‘good office’ towards himself in terms of handling the disciplinary proceedings. Such in-party and inter-party conspiracies are necessarily outside the consideration of the president, who will be concerned only with what is written in the law and Constitution.
Should the President have verified both lists?
The dissident MPs of the UML and JSP supporting Deuba’s application are working as minority groups within their individual parties. They have their own claims of legitimacy still to be proven before the competent law. The provisions relating to breakup of parties and related aspects are clearly attracted by the application of both candidates, given that the party decisions of the UML and JSP are on one side while the minority groups of both parties have gone to the other side. Under such circumstances, it is not correct legally or on principle to demand that the President verify the lists of MPs provided by the two applicants.
The law as it relates to political parties has set a specific process for the breakup of parties, which also allows minority groups to be sufficiently heard which often becomes a long-drawn process. The president’s office is not the place to utilise certain numbers or groups to divide up parties, it is meant to promote unity among the political parties and the nation generally. The place to decide majority and minority through a counting exercise is the Parliament.
It also goes against the principle of multiparty system of governance to lay claim to dissident minority of members of another political party as ‘independents’. Article 74 of the constitution clearly spells out: ‘The form of government of Nepal shall be multi-party, competitive, federal, democratic, republican, parliamentary form of government based on pluralism.’
Both claimants who approached the President should have chosen a different path rather than put her office in a position of controversy. MPs wanting to support one among the two aspirants for the post of prime minister while going against their own party whip should have done so either after completing the party division process, or being able to establishtheir independent status.
This would have been the only proper procedure. Even though the House membership of said MPs were intact at the time that the claimants approached the President, given the imminent action by both parties leading at the very least to the expulsion of a number of MPs, it becomes clear why the claims by both candidates did not carry credible ‘basis’ as required for the President’s decision under Article 76 (5).
It is evident that the President has taken her decision based not only on immediate or short-term considerations, but with a concern for the future workings of Parliament. Take for instance a situation where because a party’s disciplinary proceedings is delayed for whatever reason and the MPs’ defiance of party whip is recognised, as a result of which one claimant wins the vote of confidence. Such MPs will still be a subject to party action, however, and when that happens the newly formed government will immediately go into minority.
Constitutionally, the opposition cannot bring a motion of no-confidence until two years after a new prime minister is elected even if the government is in minority. Under such a situation, the government will not be able to adopt its policies and programs, neither the budget, nor get passage of bills in Parliament – a situation similar to that faced by current Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli.
The goal of Parliament is not to create a minority government, or an even weaker one. Instead, the goal of the Constitution is to provide stability rather than weaken the system through repeated election of minority prime ministers. Therefore, the claims of majority placed before President Bhandari by the two aspirants were like blocks of ice under the sun, bound to diminish over time.
Either claimant should have been able to present rock-solid majorities and outside of controversies, which would have been according to the spirit of the Constitution. Hence, on the basis of constitutionalism and the principles of parliamentary democracy, President Bhandari denied both applications.
Tika Dhakal is Press Adviser to President Bidya Devi Bhandari. The views expressed here are his own.