The National Assembly was formed to give experienced people a chance to be part of the parliament and help during the formation of important bills. In countries that follow the Westminster model of government, the upper house plays an important role. That, however, is not the case in Nepal as the country’s upper house has become a platform where individuals secure positions in the National Assembly based on their connections. As the election nears, many once again question the relevance and existence of the upper house.
Things were different in the past as the initial years of the National Assembly saw experienced politicians and experts others in their field be nominated for the post. That slowly changed as the first batch completed its two-year term.
“I understand why people are frustrated with the upper house. People expected experts but all we got was party cadres who lacked knowledge or experience,” says Bimala Rai Paudyal a National Assembly member. “Considering such behaviour and practices, what distinguishes the House of Representatives from the National Assembly?”
A loser’s second chance
Narayan Kaji Shrestha, who faced defeat in the 2017 general election from Gorkha-2, was elected as a member of the National Assembly on January 23, 2020. Elected from Gandaki Province, Shrestha currently is the Deputy Prime Minister and Home Minister of the country.
Bhagwati Neupane who lost the election from Gandaki province and Bimala Ghimire who lost the election for mayorship in Bhanu Municipality also shared the same trajectory.
Similarly, Mrigendra Kumar Singh Yadav and Jag Prasad Sharma were defeated in the House of Representatives elections, from Saptari-4 and Dang-3 respectively are now members of the National Assembly. Bam Dev Gautam, who lost the elections from Bardiya, secured a place in the upper house through nomination by President Bidya Devi Bhandari.
Even those who did not win as ward member(s) got the opportunity to become members of the National Assembly including Sindh Bahadur Bishwakarma who was appointed on February 7, 2018. He is soon leaving his post on March 3.
Despite the repeated criticisms, the political parties have not paid attention to this concern posed by political leaders and the general public. The latest proof of this is the list of candidates for the National Assembly elections scheduled on January 25. The list contains names like Krishna Prasad Sitaula, defeated in the House of Representatives elections in 2022 from Koshi Province, and Pooja Chaudhary, who lost in the provincial assembly elections 2022 from Rautahat-3 (a).
Speaker Ganesh Prasad Timilsina, who led the National Assembly for the entire six years under the federal system, is also dissatisfied with the individuals who have made it to the upper house.
“The allegations are something for the parties to ponder upon. The leaders should have prioritised involving intellectuals/neutrals rather than managing its members,” he says.
The 59-member National Assembly elects eight representatives, equally from all seven provinces, with an additional three individuals nominated by the President. The Constitution ensures representation of women, Dalits, minorities or disabled communities, envisioning that experts, experienced individuals, and the most qualified people from various fields will become members of the National Assembly.
Easy way in
There are some reasons why leaders aspire to join the upper house, and even the leadership create opportunities for them.
In National Assembly elections, voters consist of local-level heads/deputy heads and provincial assembly members. Typically, individuals seeking these positions undergo a vetting process by their respective parties. As a result, aspiring members of parliament can focus less on persuading individual voters and more on gaining party support to secure their candidacy.
Moreover, being a member of the National Assembly opens avenues to ministerial roles. The constitution prohibits a National Assembly member from becoming the Prime Minister, but not Deputy Prime Minister. Due to such opportunities, leaders are enticed to seek a position in the assembly.
The National Assembly is currently in its fourth election cycle since the promulgation of the Consitution in 2015. Scheduled for January 25, this election aims to fill 19 seats vacated by individuals completing their six-year terms. The previous election cycles took place in 2017, involving 56 members, followed by 2019 with 18 positions, and 2020 with 19 positions.
The cascading impacts
Another reason why the National Assembly is finding it difficult to justify itself is that it has become a shadow of the House of Representatives. The meeting of the National Assembly did not have one session when the House of Representatives was dissolved by then Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli twice. The demands and issues raised by the opposition parties in the House of Representatives automatically went to the National Assembly, where the parliamentarians of the ruling party put forward any proposal, they endorse it the same as in the House of Representatives.
The latest example – is the main opposition UML did not allow the meeting of the House of Representatives to continue for five days from July 5, 2023, due to a statement made by Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal during his visit to India. Consequently, the meeting of the National Assembly was also paused during that period.
The UML obstructed the House of Representatives for almost a month starting mid-July last year demanding a high-level inquiry committee to probe the 60-kilogram gold smuggling case and the resignation of the Home Minister. The National Assembly followed suit with leaders pushing their agendas forward.
Speaker Ganesh Timilsina himself is dissatisfied that every behaviour and activity of the House of Representatives influence the National Assembly. He says despite his attempts to prevent the overshadowing, it has been unfortunate that he did not garner the goodwill of the top leaders during political disputes.
The National Assembly is a permanent institution. Therefore, it can remain operational even in the absence of the House of Representatives. Under normal circumstances, Speaker Timilsina initiated a positive practice by personally participating in different committees. Nevertheless, in the absence of the House of Representatives, the National Assembly often experienced inactivity.
In December 2020, the Prime Minister at that time, KP Sharma Oli, dissolved the House of Representatives. Subsequently, a session of the National Assembly was convened on January 1, 2021. Despite lasting only seven hours over four days, this session, which took place after the dissolution, failed to address crucial public issues. Even after six months, important matters remained unaddressed within the House.
On May 22, 2021, the UML-led government once again dissolved the House of Representatives. The meeting of the National Assembly and committees was affected once more. However, the dissolutions were declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, reinstating the parliament.
The Constitution says that despite the closing of the National Assembly session, thematic committee meetings can still take place. However, both the National Assembly and its committees remained inactive until the restoration of the House of Representatives.
According to Khimlal Devkota, a member of the National Assembly, when the House of Representatives was dissolved twice, it seemed that the National Assembly was also in a state of dissolution.
Bimala Rai Paudyal also believes that the inability to resume the upper house is a mark of weakness.
“Since the government was not in a position to call, the President needed to be consulted by the chair together with the consultation committee. That was not done either,” she says.
Constitutional and legal distinctions
Except for the Constitution of Nepal (1962) and the Interim Constitution of Nepal (2007), all other constitutions in Nepal provided for a bicameral parliament with the National Assembly or the Upper House and the House of Representatives or the Lower House. The practices before 2015 were under the unitary governance system, but after the adoption of the federal democratic republican governance system, the role of the National Assembly has changed somewhat.
In the preamble of the constitution prepared by the ‘Constituent Assembly, and Administrative Organ Designation Committee’ during the drafting of the constitution, it is mentioned that some different qualifications have been prescribed for being a member of the House of Representatives and the National Assembly, with the intention that qualified people can be represented in the National Assembly.
Chair of the National Assembly Ganesh Prasad Timilsina restates that the members of the upper house should be assessed based on the country’s expectations with clear criteria.
There is no definite definition of an expert in the constitution. It has been stated symbolically, “…It is expected that the members should have some basic skills to face the challenges and fulfil their responsibilities.”
According to the constitution, the responsibility of the National Assembly is to correctly establish the rights of the local level, state, and union, and to prevent the House of Representatives from trying to enact laws contrary to the spirit of federalism. There is an explanatory comment in the constitution about the propriety of the National Assembly – “This House is expected to fulfil its role to maintain creative and mutual relations between the national government and the provinces.”
In addition, there are some constitutional and legal differences regarding the National Assembly. But the MPs are demanding that it should cease. When a bill originating in the House of Representatives is passed and sent to the National Assembly, and if the latter does not decide within 60 days, it proceeds de facto.
This has placed the National Assembly in a dilemma. The Chairman of the National Assembly, Timilsina, says, “Such an arrangement should also apply to the House of Representatives, or both should be equal.”
Need for course correction
Some instances have turned these so-called experts into a laughing stock due to their actions.
On July 5, 2023, a discussion on the Electronic Commerce (E-Commerce) Bill 2023 was tabled in the National Assembly. However, the parliamentarians misunderstood the main point and instead discussed the matter of electricity. The MPs, who had not read the proposal, suggested that electricity consumption within Nepal should also be increased besides exporting electricity to India and Bangladesh.
During the meeting, Ramesh Rijal, the Minister of Industry, Commerce and Supplies, also mentioned that India would purchase electricity during the Prime Minister’s visit. Unfortunately, the bill was unanimously approved.
Timilsina considers the incident an example, that in his six-year tenure, he does not want to remember. Som Bahadur Thapa, a former secretary at the Parliament Secretariat, termed the incident ‘a joke’ in the Parliament of Nepal.
“This is strong proof of the kind of MPs we have, who speak without knowing what they are talking about.”
Timilsina assumed the role of the speaker/chair of the National Assembly after the establishment of the Federal Democratic Republic. He had the opportunity to establish the system and the dignity of the National Assembly. However, instead of setting a positive example, he will soon be retiring after being accused of playing tricks with the Speaker and showing interest in the work of the House of Representatives.
Timilsina has repeatedly commented on the affairs of the House of Representatives. The latest instance was during a seminar on ‘Japan: Past, Present, and Future’ held in the capital on December 2, 2023, he publicly stated that the election results of the House of Representatives did not bode well.
Pointing to the emergence of a new party and the victory of some independent candidates, he said, “In a democracy, you get to choose candidates, irrespective of their party affiliation. However, is the signal positive?”
In August/ September 2022, Timilsina wrote a letter to the Election Commission, urging them to extend the tenure of Speaker and Deputy Speaker. Upon receiving a response stating that the Commission would not determine the tenure of the elected Parliament, Timilsina directed the Parliament Secretariat not to execute decisions made by the Management Committee after September 17, 2022.
This created conflict between the Speaker of the House of Representatives and the Speaker of the National Assembly and in the crux of this dispute between the parties, the country had to bear the consequences of this conflict. Laws could not be enacted promptly, and the place once considered the domain of experts was overshadowed by the party’s interest.
A study conducted by the Democracy Resource Center Nepal (DRCN) on the legislative functioning of the National Assembly has revealed that the Upper House has passed some bills that go against the spirit of federalism.
The report’s concluding remarks say, “…the bills passed by the House of Representatives have not undergone significant changes or discussions in the National Assembly. The conclusion section of the study states that – “Furthermore, some bills, contradicting the spirit of federalism and addressing the interests of interest groups, have been approved by the National Assembly.”
Overall, in the last six years, parties have introduced individuals who, given their presentation level, have raised questions about the National Assembly’s justification. If there are no changes in the constitution, laws, and policies concerning the upper assembly, these concerns will persist.”