Constraining the Cabinet

  • We have learned from the Interim Electoral Government that 11 ministers can effectively manage the state

Jan 22, 2014-

A majority of people seemed to believe that the 2013 election to the second Constituent Assembly (CA) would pave the way for much needed political stability in the country. However, two months since the election results were announced, we are still being governed by an interim government headed by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. The Nepali Congress (NC), the largest party in the CA, is seeking support from other parties in its endeavor to form an all-party national government under its leadership.

Looking back on coalitions

Coalition governments in Nepal are not a new phenomenon. Since the advent of Nepali democracy in 1951, we have had 26 governments, out of which, only eight were single-party governments. In the 50s, out of seven governments, only two were single-party governments: the NC government led by Matrika Prasad Koirala (November 16, 1951—August 14, 1952) and the government of the first elected prime minister Bisheshwor Prasad Koirala (May 27, 1959—December 26, 1960). Similarly, since the restoration of democracy in 1990, we have had 19 governments, out of which only six were single-party.  

The number of coalition governments would be even higher if we are to consider the governments formed under the direct rule of the king. In many ways, they were a coalition government of individuals rather than parties. However, it is difficult to categorise the present bureaucratic government headed by the Chief Justice. Except for two, all other ministers were appointed under the recommendation of the four largest parties from the former CA.  

A common characteristic with coalition governments is that none were based on agreed upon goals, policies and programmes. Even when ‘minimum common programmes’ were announced and agreed to by participating parties in the government, they were prepared on an ad-hoc basis. The actual negotiations were invariably limited to power sharing, specifically the distribution of ministerial portfolios. Therefore, these ‘minimum common programmes’, which were made public before and after the formation of the government, never received any importance.

In view of the electoral system that we have adopted—a combination of first-past-the-post (FPTP) and Proportional Representation (PR), we are bound to witness more coalition governments in the days to come.

Expanding Cabinets

History shows that power-sharing arrangements result in an ever-increasing size of the Cabinet. As a result, much energy is spent on maintaining the coalition rather than addressing governance issues. The time has come for political parties and pundits to start shifting the paradigm from power-sharing arrangements to policies and programmes.

At present, there is consensus among the political parties on the following three issues—drafting a new constitution for the Federal Republic of Nepal within a year; holding elections to local level governing bodies within six months; and establishing a Truth and Reconciliation Commission.  

It will be more advantageous in the short as well as the long term for the NC, as the largest party, to set these issues as the main goal of the national government, which it plans to lead. Therefore, the forthcoming government should aim to take necessary measures to create a conducive environment to draft the constitution within a year; provide logistic and financial support to the Election Commission to organise elections of local bodies within a period of six months; and support the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Such a programme should also include a blueprint on strategies to mobilise both financial and human resources to achieve the three main objectives while giving continuity to regular government functions.

Negotiations with other political parties should be based on substance with programmes formulated to achieve these objectives. But first, there should be an agreed-upon size of the Cabinet. We have learned from the Interim Electoral Government that 11 ministers can effectively manage the state. Party representation can be based on the principle of proportional representation of the parties in the CA. Therefore, if the Cabinet size were limited to 15, the NC would have the PM post and four ministers while the UML would have four ministers, the Maoists two, and other political parties, four.

Reshuffle and limit

The NC should urge the other parties to submit their lists of ministerial candidates. The Prime Minister must have the prerogative to select his/her Cabinet members from the proposed list submitted by different parties to ensure that the candidate is committed to achieving the goals set by the government. All ministers would then be committed to the agreed programmes and take ownership under leadership of the PM. The PM, on his/her part, should give weight to the demonstrated competence and merit of the candidates to lead their assi-gned ministry. Additionally, there should be an agreement-based code of conduct for members of the Cabinet. Various sub-committees in the CA can be entrusted to monitor the performance of each ministry and the Cabinet as a whole should be accountable to the CA/Parliament.

The portfolio of ministries can be rearranged in the following manner: the Ministry of National Security would be in charge of Defense and Home Affairs; the Ministry of the Constituent Assembly and Parliamentary Affairs in charge of Law and Justice; the Ministry of Economic and Foreign Affairs in charge of Finance, Trade and Commerce and Foreign Affairs; the Ministry of Self Government in charge of Local Development and Federalism; the Ministry of Public Services in charge of General Administration, Supplies, Information and Communication.

Similarly, the Ministry of Infrastructure Development would be in charge of Physical Infrastructure, Transportation and Urban Development; the Ministry of Social Development in charge of Health and Education; the Ministry of Agricultural Development in charge of Food and Agriculture, Irrigation, Cooperatives and Land Reform; the Youth and Sports Ministry; the Ministry for Peace and Reconstruction; the Ministry of Energy, Power and Environment; the Ministry of Science and Technology; the Forestry and Soil Conservation Ministry; the Culture and Women Affairs Ministry; the Ministry for Industries; and the Tourism Ministry.

Such a reshuffle would go some ways towards ensuring the delivery of the constitution, the provision of local governing bodies and the establishment of institutions like the TRC within the stated timeframe. It would also enable the political parties and the NC in particular to reverse the distrust people have towards political parties at large.

Sijapati was senior economic advisor of UNHCR at its headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland

Published: 22-01-2014 11:10

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