Patience Fading for Nepali Judge Turned Premier

By Binaj Gurubacharya 16 August 2013

KATMANDU — When Nepal’s chief justice was named head of an interim government in March, he promised he would serve only as a caretaker until he could oversee elections in June that were supposed to usher the country into an era of political stability.

Those elections never happened, and newly scheduled November polls are in doubt as well.

Meanwhile, the South Asian country—known to most outsiders for its majestic mountains and exotic, ancient culture—remains mired in political deadlock, still looking for a transition from a bloody civil war and repressive monarchy to peace and democracy.

The chief justice and interim government chief, Khilraj Regmi, has shocked even some of his supporters by proposing an extensive budget, making sweeping bureaucratic changes and exercising the full power of a prime minister.

The country’s top politicians never envisaged that Regmi would take such strong actions when they named him to the post in March as a compromise candidate they hoped could bring orderly elections to a country trying to gain normalcy.

“The government’s strategy and objective should have been only elections, but it is diverting from the main objective and focusing on governing the nation,” said Bhojraj Pokhrel, who conducted Nepal’s last election in 2008.

“They are more occupied with the administration rather than proceeding with elections,” Pokhrel said.

The fate of this nation of 29 million, which has been frozen by political paralysis, might rest with Regmi.

Maoist rebels in Nepal fought government troops between 1996 and 2006 until they gave up their armed revolt and joined a peace process that evolved after the country abolished its longstanding monarchy in 2008.

A constituent assembly elected to a two-year term in 2008 failed in its task of writing a constitution for the country because of bitter fighting between the main parties. With no political framework in place, the assembly’s term was repeatedly extended until it expired in May 2012, plunging the nation into a governing crisis. Baburam Bhattarai, a leader of the main Maoist party, led a controversial caretaker administration, but rival parties demanded he step down before new elections for a second constituent assembly could be held.

They turned to Regmi to guide Nepal through quick elections.

But Regmi failed to hold June polls. He then appointed a controversial official, Lokman Singh Karki, to head a powerful government watchdog that investigates and prosecutes politicians and officials. Karki is accused of corruption himself when he served as the chief of the customs department, and of abusing his powers to crush pro-democracy demonstrations while serving under then-King Gyanendra’s autocratic rule.

Regmi’s government also announced by fiat the fiscal budget for the whole year in July, without a parliament to question it or debate it. Critics say he should have presented a budget for only a few months and allow the next elected government to fulfill the task.

His government also granted contracts to upgrade Nepal’s international airport to foreign contractors and promoted and transferred officials by the hundreds.

Dilendra Badhu of the Nepali Congress, the nation’s second-largest party and a supporter of Regmi’s appointment, said the government should not be making long-term programs and policies.

“This has not helped create the environment for elections,” Badhu said.

Regmi’s biggest hurdle has been the alliance of 33 small opposition parties led by the Communist Party of Nepal Maoist, a small breakaway Maoist group that has been threatening to disrupt elections scheduled for Nov. 19.

“We will not allow elections under this government,” said Pampha Bhusal, of the breakaway Maoist group. “First, this government has to be disbanded and a new one led by political parties that represent all the political forces needs to be formed to hold the polls.”

Shanker Pokhrel, of Nepal’s Marxist-Leninist party, also questioned Regmi’s rule, which his party initially supported as the only path to elections.

“The chief justice has failed in maintaining good governance by making controversial appointments, has made little progress and failed to bring the opposition parties on board for elections,” Pokhrel said.

Regmi addressed some of the criticism in a June speech, where he insisted he was working to ensure the elections were free and fair and that voter turnout was high.

“I continue to remain unbiased,” he said.

Regmi’s refusal to resign as chief justice has also been criticized, especially because several Supreme Court cases challenging his appointment as prime minister keep getting postponed.

Regmi said he has stayed away from the courts since his appointment.

“I have kept myself separate from the judiciary and my role as the chief justice and I am focused on my role as the executive head,” Regmi said in a speech broadcast in June. “I have always believed that the judiciary should be independent and want to assure everyone that they should not worry or be concerned.”

Business leaders are also losing patience with Regmi.

“The government should fulfill its responsibility and the head of the government should concentrate all his efforts in holding the election,” Saurabh Jyoti of the Federation of Nepalese Chamber of Commerce and Industries. “There is no other way out.”

But for many Nepalese, he is the only hope of ending the political deadlock in the country.

“For me it does not matter who is the head of the government as long as he gets the job done,” said Sudarshan Giri, a local businessman. “The politicians could not agree on the election, and now the chief justice appears to be the only option.”