Nepal's answer to deadlock: making chief judge PM

AP News
Posted: Mar 06, 2013 7:52 PM
Nepal's answer to deadlock: making chief judge PM

KATMANDU, Nepal (AP) — Nepal's quiet, barely known chief justice is on the verge of taking almost total control of the Himalayan nation, becoming the interim head of government as well as the top judge in a country that has been without a legislature for months.

It seems to be the only thing the country's furiously feuding politicians can agree on, even though one of them calls the move "flawed in every way."

Paralyzed by political gridlock for months, Nepal's four biggest political parties have turned to Khilraj Regmi to take over as prime minister and guide it through long-delayed elections. Regmi's own court, acting without him, is expected to issue a decision about the plan Thursday.

Lawyers and some political parties have protested the move as an affront to the separation of powers, but Nepal is in a legal vacuum. There aren't really any rules.

A Constituent Assembly, which acted as a Parliament even as it struggled to write a constitution to turn this former war-wracked monarchy into a peaceful republic, finally expired in May after extending deadlines to finish its work four times, in vain. With no permanent constitution, the country has only the expired interim constitution to guide it.

Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai, of the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), has remained in power since then, despite opposition protests that his legal hold on the office had expired as well.

Elections had been set for November 2012, but were canceled amid squabbling between the major parties.

With no one able to agree on who should lead the country into new polls, Bhattarai's party proposed putting Regmi in charge of an interim government that would hold power until elections in June.

"The opposition parties were not going to allow our party to hold the elections and it was going to prolong the political uncertainty," said Khimlal Devkota, of the Maoist party. "It is a way out of the political deadlock."

Surprisingly, the three other largest parties said yes.

"We agreed to the proposal because we wanted to create the environment for elections despite knowing that it was against the constitutional process and flawed in every way," said Dilendra Prasad Badu, a spokesman for the Nepali Congress, the second-largest party.

Regmi, 63, has remained free of controversy in his two years as chief justice, until now. The Nepal Bar Association and some of the smaller parties have criticized the arrangement as inappropriately mixing law and politics. Some have called a general strike for Wednesday in protest.

"This is unacceptable in a democracy," said Dev Gurung of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), an offshoot of the ruling Maoist party. "It is only promoting a party-less, undemocratic system that undermines the roles of the political parties in resolving the deadlock."

The proposal conflicts with the interim constitution, which bars Supreme Court justices from holding political positions.

The Supreme Court is expected to rule Thursday on a case filed against the plan; Regmi is leaving the decision to the rest of the court.

If the court allows the plan to go ahead, Nepal's largely ceremonial president — who most sides have granted the power to change the interim constitution in the absence of a legislature — would have to issue an ordinance removing ban from the document for Regmi to take over.

Opponents of the plan want Regmi to step down as chief justice if he becomes interim prime minister, but it is unclear whether he will.

Party leaders expect that Regmi would appoint a handful of other officials just to keep the government running. Regmi, who has no political experience, has made no public comments since the parties suggested that he take over.

A similar arrangement took place in nearby Bangladesh in 1990. Chief Justice Shahabuddin Ahmed took over a caretaker government for three months to oversee elections after the ouster of military ruler Hossain Mohammad Ershad.

Maoists rebels in Nepal fought government troops between 1996 and 2006 until they gave up their armed revolt and joined a peace process. They emerged as the largest political party in the 2008 Constituent Assembly, but no party got a clear majority. Four different prime ministers assumed power in the next four years. Differences among the political parties have been blamed for the delays in the peace process and in the writing of a new constitution for Nepal.

Political analyst Shreekant Regmi, who is not related to the chief justice, said Nepal's political parties have failed so badly that the country had no choice but to turn to the judge.

"This should be only a one-time thing and should not be established as a precedent," he said.