Presidential system, no-no

October 17, 2017 01:30 AM Bishal Thapa


An executive president would not only be detrimental for Nepal’s socio-economic progress, it could also undercut and even spell an end of the nascent democracy.

Earlier this year, Baburam Bhattarai submitted a petition reportedly containing a million signatures demanding a directly elected executive president. Bhattarai is a former prime minister, leader of the Naya Shakti party, former member of the Maoist party and a key ideologue of the left. Many senior communist leaders in CPN-UML and Maoist Center, including Prachanda himself, have endorsed calls for a presidential system.
An executive president would not only be detrimental for Nepal’s socio-economic progress, it will undermine and possibly end democracy in Nepal.

Full details of the proposed presidential system have not been released. Under the current parliamentary system, the prime minister is elected by parliament and holds executive powers, while the president is the constitutional head of state but without executive authority. In the presidential system, the president will be directly elected, hold executive powers, will be the army’s commander-in-chief as well as the head of state.

A presidential system will be destabilizing for Nepal. Again, it will erode and possibly end our democratic system. The presidential system does contain a system of separation of powers, with independent legislature and judiciary. But the legislature and the judiciary will be able to limit presidential authority only if their authority over the state is equivalent to the president’s. 

In young democracies like Nepal the real authority of the state—the ability to exercise coercive power—is contained only within the armed forces. There is no other counterbalancing force (unless of course, we want to risk a civil war). Whoever controls the armed forces effectively controls the state. 

In a presidential system, the executive president exercises absolute control over the armed forces. In a parliamentary system, the president and executive authority (i.e., the prime minister and council of ministers) share that authority. This division of authority is at the core of check and balance, thereby limiting abuse of power.

All the president’s men

In practice the judiciary and the legislature derive their authority from their ability to command the armed forces. But in a presidential system, the extent of this command will be as per the discretion of the president. 

Our civil society, media, religious and other non-governmental institutions are young and state-dependent. Nepal’s complex social affinities and hierarchies also make it difficult to maintain independent counterbalancing forces. Granting an executive president absolute control over the armed forces would leave the state vulnerable to abuse of presidential power and an erosion of democracy.

There are many other arguments against a presidential system in Nepal. But one way to illustrate why a parliamentary system is still the best for Nepal is to explain it in the context of current events.   

Over the past few years, Nepal’s judiciary and legislature have been increasingly abused for narrow, sometimes personal, gains.

Several high-profile cases, like the conviction and subsequent pardon of FNCCI President Pradeep Jung Pandey, have clearly signaled that the state’s authority was open to abuse. It has eroded confidence in the judiciary as an impartial adjudicator of the country’s laws.

Our parliament is unstable, in part because political parties and MPs have constantly shifted alliances; many of the parliamentarians are no more than pawns in a larger power game. Much of the legal basis for policy making, governance and administration has been derived through executive orders instead of legislative bills. This has undermined the legislature and allowed for open abuse of state authority.  

Politics has pervaded almost all institutions: judiciary, civil service, police force, medical institutions, educational institutions, public state-owned corporations, labor unions, trade associations, etc. This is a reflection of the importance of state authority. To stay relevant in Nepali politics, it is important to have control over the instruments of the state.

These instruments, as we have seen repeatedly seen, are being flagrantly abused. If it is this easy to abuse state authority even within the fractured polity, imagine what would happen if we had an executive authority with total control over armed forces. 

Maligned by Maoists 

The case for the presidential system is not based on arguments for why it should be preferred over the parliamentary system. Instead, it largely represents a response to growing public perception that the parliamentary system has failed. Unstable politics, fickle alliances, rotating prime ministers and the failure of parliament to deliver have fuelled the perception that the parliamentary system isn’t working.

The system faces many challenges. But it hasn’t failed. It is being discredited, more intentionally than accidentally. The system doesn’t actually have to fail; it simply needs to be perceived to have failed. 

The Maoist party has been the chief architect of a systematic effort to discredit the parliamentary system. As the third largest party, it has skillfully created and toppled governments. It has ensured that politics remains unstable. It has intervened in the courts just enough to malign the judiciary’s independence, going so far as to cajole its major coalition partner into bringing an impeachment motion against the chief justice. It has undermined the integrity of elections by claiming it was rigged and in Bharatpur, it engineered a victory by force.

Only the military has been able to remain independent and with relatively high public credibility intact. 

That may be about to change. Last year the army accepted a contract to build a new highway connecting Kathmandu with the Tarai, a flagship government project. As the army gets dragged into charges of inefficiency, corruption and ineptitude, which it invariably will on this project, it will lose much of the credibility. 

These events are only a small sampling, there are much more. Collectively, they undermine confidence in the parliamentary system. It is then alluring to imagine an executive president bypassing these challenges and getting things done.

In Nepal’s case, a presidential system may not necessarily lead to authoritarian rule. But in the absence of a robust check and balance system, the possibility is there. The presidential system will vest the executive head with disproportionate power, which in turn will only amplify the race for power, making politics even more unstable.

Wrong answer

The answer to today’s problems with the parliamentary system is not in concentration of power on an executive president. It is the exact opposite. The answer to today’s problems is in further decentralization and genuine devolution of power from the centre to the provinces and to the local level. 

Our constitution is on the right track. We must reject calls for a presidential system. 

Bishal_thapa@hotmail.com


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