Monday, 12 April, 2021

House Dissolution Triggers Debate

Mukti Rijal


Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli dissolved the House of the Representatives (HoR) during the last fortnight. The move has sparked off debates and controversies zeroed on its relevance, rationale and validity. It can be characterised as a bold, consequential and far-reaching step taken by the executive head of the government. There may be several arguments for or against the current step of dissolving the parliament. Moreover, the House dissolution issue has been challenged and has therefore been placed under the scrutiny of the judiciary. It is therefore being reviewed by the Supreme Court. Since the case is sub judice in the court of justice, the apex court is expected to deliver its verdict soon to clear political cobwebs.

Overview of concept
It is beyond the purview of this write up to question or support the move of the PM to dissolve the HoR. This article attempts to provide an overview of the concept and principles of parliament dissolution especially attributed to parliamentary democracies. There is no gainsaying the fact that many parliamentary constitutions especially modelled in line with British Westminster model give formal, written, constitutional expression to the power of the prime minister to dissolve the parliament. This power of dissolution is executed by the prime minister with a view to seeking renewed mandate of the people through the elections.
In almost all the parliamentary democracies, government is generally led by prime minister, who is the head of the Council of Ministers enjoying confidence of the parliament. This means that the government is indirectly chosen as the people elect the parliament through direct ballot. The parliament then forms the government. The prime minister is the leader of the majority party in the parliament. Once appointed to the office, the government remains responsible to the parliament. This responsibility is exercised by the parliament through such instruments as oversight and control. Parliament conducts critical deliberation on vital issues in parliament committees or panels, questions ministers over their performance and convenes plenary debates on important subjects. The parliamentary control is also enforced at crucial moments by means of a vote of no confidence.
The vote of no confidence expresses a withdrawal of parliament's support from the government. In parliamentary democracies, a close relationship exists between the executive and legislative powers. It rests on a careful balance of reciprocal trust between parliament and the government. If the majority in parliament withdraws support from the government, then one of two things might usually happen. First, a new government may be formed that is more agreeable to the majority in parliament. If this could not be exercised due to one or other reasons, the parliament may be dissolved leading to the new elections. Dissolution of parliament may serve various purposes in relation to the working of parliamentary democracy. It is also said to be one of the means of enforcing the party discipline.
A prime minister enjoying the power of dissolution can dissolve the parliament. He or she can appeal directly to the people to seek fresh and renewed mandate. The power of dissolution, exercised by prime minister, thereby serves as a restraint on parliament. It is said to discourage the frivolous and unsought for use of votes of no confidence. Dissolution, according to a study report by International Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA), is a way of breaking inter-institutional deadlock. The power of dissolution may make it possible to resolve deadlock between the government and the parliamentary majority. In parliamentary democracies, there should be close, harmonious and constructive working relationship between the executive and legislative branches of the government.
When this relationship is disturbed or goes to break down, dissolution of parliament can allow the people to determine who should have the upper hand — either by returning a parliamentary majority that is supportive of the government or by returning a different parliamentary majority that will support a different government. A government might invoke the step of dissolution if one of its major policies or legislative initiatives, for which it claimed a mandate, were to be disapproved by parliament. It is a way of reinforcing a government's popular mandate. When a government’s parliamentary majority erodes or its levels of public support are called into question, the government may wish to reinforce its mandate by dissolving parliament and calling an election.

Risky strategy
This is a risky strategy and more of an adventurous step politically, according to the IDEA report, since the incumbent government may lose the election and so be voted out of office. However, dissolution provides a clear and effective means of testing public confidence in the government, and if the government wins the election, it may have renewed vigour. Dissolution is thus a way of testing public support to the government and its leadership. The IDEA study says that a government has to take major policy decisions that deviate from its previous commitments or that responds in potentially controversial ways to emerging issues that could not be foreseen at the time of the preceding election.
In such cases, the government may decide that it needs, for the sake of legitimacy, an explicit public endorsement for its decision. This public endorsement may be sought by dissolving parliament and calling a new election. The issue of dissolution has been fiercely debated across the political divide in the country. As the matter is under the consideration of the constitutional bench of the Supreme Court, it is incumbent upon the court to scrutinise the issues at stake and define the course through interpretation of the relevant constitutional provisions. It is anticipated that the court responds to the prevailing situation of impasse soon.

(Rijal, PhD, contributes regularly to TRN and writes on contemporary political, economic and governance issues.