President Bidya Bhandari got re-elected on Tuesday as the Head of the State, but the euphoria with which Nepalis celebrated her emergence as the country’s first female President two years ago is somewhat muted.
In October 2015, Bhandari succeeded Nepal’s first President Ram Baran Yadav amidst protests over the newly-promulgated Constitution.
Madhesi parties, Janajati groups and women rights activists criticised the Constitution for ‘not being inclusive’. But major parties defended the Statute, arguing that ‘it is the most inclusive charter ever’. To prove their point, they highlighted the fact this Constitution gave Nepal its first ever woman President.
Two years later, as Bhandari gets re-elected for a fresh five-year term, not everyone is happy. There is discontent not just within the main opposition NC, but also within the UML — the ruling party that backed her.
During her first two-year term, Bhandari was accused of failing to be the Head of the State in the true sense. The NC alleged that she did not rise over her previous party’s interests, and some UML leaders have accused her of running her own coterie of supporters from Sitwal Niwas.
After the death of her firebrand communist husband Madan Bhandari in a jeep accident in 1993, she was politically groomed by UML leader KP Oli, who has just emerged as Nepal’s strongest Prime Minister since 1990.
It was Oli who made Bhandari Defence Minister in the Madhav Nepal government in 2009, and President in 2015. Even this time, Oli strongly stood by her, arguing that she is “too young to retire” and must be elected for another term. Ex-Prime Minister Jhal Nath Khanal had to give in to Oli’s pressure.
And Bhandari has not concealed her admiration for and loyalty to Oli, even while holding a position that does not allow her to be inclined to a particular party or a leader.
Bhandari, clearly at Oli’s behest, sat on an ordinance passed by the NC government, delaying the Upper House elections. She also did not endorse the names of the three persons nominated by the previous government as the National Assembly (NA) members.
But when Oli became PM, she swiftly endorsed the names of the new nominees, prompting students affiliated to the NC to take to the streets last month.
This episode tarnished Bhandari’s image and also harmed the institution of the President. The more unfortunate chapter was when UML stalwart Asta Laxmi Shakya accused Bhandari of lobbying against her during the Chief Ministerial election in Province 3. Shakya was confident to be elected as the CM of Province 3, but the President reportedly persuaded many provincial MPs to not vote for her.
So Shakya opposed Oli’s decision to repeat Bhandari as President, but she was eventually shut up by a majority of the UML Standing Committee members loyal to the party Chair.
There is a clear indication that Bhandari has been unable to dissociate herself from her previous party. Constitution experts and analysts say her inability to be a unifying figure could hurt not just the presidential institution, but also the republic that is still in its infancy.