When Bidya Devi Bhandari was elected the president of Nepal, people in and outside Nepal saw a sign of progress. For the first time in its history, Nepal had appointed a female head of state, and all, especially women, were hopeful about what this meant for them.
The President Women Upliftment Programme, initiated by Bhandari, did some good in terms of empowering women through social and economic means. The programme also focussed on increasing access to education, health and social services, eliminating the trafficking of women and girls, and ending social malpractices and gender-based violence. This programme has been a significant aspect of her tenure.
However, during her time at Sheetal Niwas as the president of the country, Bidya Devi Bhandari has also faced criticisms, perhaps more than compliments.
The partisan president
The most serious accusation against President Bhandari is her inability to rise above partisan beliefs and the pressure from her (previous) party’s leadership. The first incident related to this was when she nominated a member of the National Assembly, who was a political appointee.
On February 9, 2018, the government led by Sher Bahadur Deuba recommended the appointment of Krishna Prasad Poudel, Gopal Kumar Basnet, and Chandani Joshi as members of the National Assembly. However, President Bhandari did not implement this recommendation for more than two weeks.
After the Deuba-led government was replaced by KP Sharma Oli on February 20, 2018, Bhandari promptly approved the recommendation to make Yuba Raj Khatiwada, Ram Narayan Bidari and Bimala Rai Paudyal members of the National Assembly.
After being elected as the president, there is a practice of resigning from their respective parties. Bhandari did so too, but in many cases, she took decisions in favour of her party the UML.
To resolve the dispute within the unified Nepal Communist Party (NCP) formed by the merger of the UML and the Maoist Centre, the leaders were summoned to collective and individual meetings by Bidya Devi Bhandari Bhandari. During that time, Pushpa Kamal Dahal and Madhav Kumar Nepal were standing against KP Sharma Oli. To resolve dispute, she even called leader Bamdev Gautam at Sheetal Niwas to resolve the dispute.
After the president urged Oli to reconcile, UML leader Bhim Rawal publicly criticised the move stating Bhandarai was violating the dignity and prestige of the president by supporting one side in an internal issue.
President Bhandari had discussions with Madhav Kumar Nepal, Jhala Nath Khanal, Bishnu Poudel, and others to help resolve the dispute. According to sources, Bhandari also called all members of the secretariat of the erstwhile NCP and discussed the party dispute.
During the NCP dispute, both Oli and Dahal both knowingly or unknowingly gave space to the president.
The internal dispute of NCP took another turn as the Supreme Court dissolved the party’s unity over a dispute related to the party’s name. Even after that, she continued to provide support to the Oli-led government. Following the NCP split, Oli dissolved the House of Representatives. Disregarding constitutional provisions, Bhandari upheld the decision to dissolve the house and announced dates for the early elections. Bhandari was heavily criticised for this as the Supreme Court revoked the decision calling it unconstitutional. Oli once again dissolved the House and Bhandari supported the move again, but the move was once again cancelled out by the Supreme Court.
Before the dissolution of the House of Representatives, Sher Bahadur Deuba had claimed the support of 149 lawmakers for the position of Prime Minister, but President Bidya Devi Bhandari had refused to appoint him claiming he did not have enough support.
Bhandari also supported UML chief KP Sharma Oli when he tried to fill 52 posts at various constitutional commissions by bypassing the Parliamentary Hearing Committee.
Oli had issued an ordinance allowing the Constitutional Council to convene a meeting even with three members, and in such a situation, a decision could be made with a majority (two members).
According to the aforementioned ordinance, the council meeting held on December 15, 2020, had recommended 32 individuals for appointment to constitutional bodies such as the Commission for Investigation of Abuse of Authority (CIAA), Election Commission, and National Human Rights Commission, among others. Those recommended individuals were appointed to their respective positions without a parliamentary hearing and have since taken the oath of office from the President.
Pleasure in power
Bidya Devi Bhandari as the president had limited constitutional rights. Her main role was to authenticate government decisions as well as bills passed by the legislative. But, looking at her seven years in office, she behaved differently based on who was leading the government.
During her first term, President Bhandari suspended the medical education ordinance for a long time without any reason. The government during the time was led by Deuba.
Many criticised her move. After the government objected to her move, she passed it and sent it back to the lower house.
On April 21, 2020, the president issued a political party-related ordinance. After reaching the peak of the dispute between the then-ruling party Nepal Communist Party, she revoked the ordinance four days later. Criticism was raised that revoking the ordinance after only four days was not appropriate.
On the same day, 83 lawmakers tried to submit a petition to President Bidya Devi Bhandari saying that a special session should be called after the issuance of the ordinance related to the Constitutional Council. The letter was not registered even when the NCP leaders Bhim Rawal and Pampha Bhusal waited for over five hours.
According to leader Rawal, Hari Paudel, the secretary of the President’s Office, consulted the President and said that he would come with the registration number. But later, he switched off his phone and disappeared.
Nepali Congress leader Pradeep Poudel, speaking satirically about the government’s performance, said in a parliamentary meeting on February 15, “The country needs a rubber-stamp president who keeps the seal at home and hides the secretary if needed,” he said.
This comes as Bidya Devi Bhandari, time and again, has passed ordinances brought by the Oli-led government compared to the Deuba-led government.
President Bhandari has remained silent on the citizenship bill passed twice by both houses of the federal parliament. The president, who is considered ceremonial, only signs the decision of the executive and administrative if she deems fit and has the power to not sign it.
The Citizenship Bill, after it was passed by both the House of Representatives and the National Assembly, was sent to the present for verification by Speaker Agni Sapkota on July 31, 2022.
However, on August 14, 2022, Bhandari returned the bill to the lower house with a 15-point suggestion. The returned Citizenship Bill was re-endorsed by both houses and sent to the president again on September 5.
According to the constitution, she had to verify the bill within 15 days. But, she did not. Nor did she state why she did not verify the bill. The case against the president for her role in this is still sub judice in court.
Review the role now
After reviewing Bidya Devi Bhandari’s term, there is a demand in the newly-elected parliament to discuss the powers held by the president.
Speaking at the House of Representatives meeting on February 15, Pradeep Yadav from Janata Samajbadi Party Nepal (JSPN) said that the president had not certified bills sent by the Federal Parliament twice, including the citizenship bill.
“It is necessary to discuss the president’s veto in the parliament,” said Yadav.
Nepali Congress senior leader Ram Chandra Paudel also says that the role of the president should be clearly defined in the coming days.
“We must use this as a learning experience and carry out our work,” says Paudel.
Santosh Pariyar, chief whip of Rastriya Swatantra Party, says there is a place for politics and that place is not in the president’s office.
Rajendra Dahal, the communication advisor to President Ram Baran Yadav (Bidya Devi Bhandari’s predecessor), says that the constitution of Nepal envisages that the president “does not make mistakes”.
“It means the president is above everything else. But what has happened recently has raised a lot of concerns regarding the role of the president at the public level,” says Dahal.
Former ambassador Vijaya Kanta Karna says that the role of the president should be discussed in the parliament.
“The parties gave President Bidya Devi Bhandari a chance to be involved in politics. In order to stop this from happening, new laws need to be drafted on what the president can and cannot do,” says Karna.
Due to a lack of laws regarding the president’s powers, the current president is able to perform actions such as summoning various government agencies for discussions, holding talks with army generals, and providing foreign media with exclusive interviews without seeking permission from the government.
“The current system is an example of the dual rule in Nepal. It’s like what happened during the Panchayat era when the country was ruled by both the palace and the government,” says Karna.
This story was translated from the original Nepali version and edited for clarity and length.