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Nepal parties at war over first president

By Sudeshna Sarkar, IANS,

Kathmandu : Open war erupted between Nepal’s political parties Thursday, the eve of the republic’s first presidential polls, signifying an end to the politics of consensus and indicating steep hurdles for the Maoists when they form the new government.

In a dramatic turnaround, the Maoists – who had earlier indicated they would support any candidate chosen by their allies, the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist (UML), for the post of Nepal’s first president at the historic election Saturday – came up with a candidate of their own, enraging the UML.

The former rebels chose a former revolutionary from the Terai plains, Ram Raja Prasad Singh, who had been part of an armed movement in support of a republic long before the Maoists started their People’s War with the same aim in 1996.

Singh, whose family was close to the Indian socialist leaders who fought against the British occupation of India, went to prison as a boy along with his father for harbouring Indian revolutionaries.

In virtual political retirement now, the veteran leader was picked by the Maoists to ensure there would be no parallel source of power to try eclipse the prime minister, a post that Maoist chief Prachanda is expected to assume after the presidential poll is over.

Prachanda, however, said his party would propose Singh’s name to ensure that the ceremonial post of head of state – who would replace deposed king Gyanendra – retained an inclusive flavour, giving special importance to the ethnic communities and women.

The rebels are also proposing one of their own MPs, Shanta Shrestha, for the post of Nepal’s first vice president.

The move came after the UML was dead set on fielding its former chief, Madhav Kumar Nepal, for the president’s post.

Nepal’s nomination was initially opposed by the Maoists on the ground that he had lost the April election from both his constituencies, which indicated that the people did not want him.

With Maoist hardliners opposing Nepal’s nomination, the former guerrillas Thursday announced their own candidates, triggering a furious retaliation from the UML.

The enraged UML said as the Maoists had reneged on their pact, they would propose Ram Preet Paswan for president and one of their senior women leaders, Ashta Laxmi Shakya, for vice president.

The third largest party in the ruling alliance, Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala’s Nepali Congress (NC), came up with a third set of names to make Saturday’s fight hotter.

After the Maoists point-blank refused to accept Koirala as president, the NC has nominated one of its senior leaders, Ram Baran Yadav for the post and Man Bahadur Bishwakarma for vice president.

The fourth largest party in Nepal’s caretaker parliament, the Madhesi Janadhikar Forum, said it would support Singh but would propose a different candidate – Parmanand Jha – for vice-president.

To make the fight multi-cornered, 13 of the smaller parties in the house are unitedly proposing a member from the indigenous and disadvantaged Tharu community – Laxmi Lal Chaudhuri – for Nepal’s first president.

According to a recent amendment in the constitution, a candidate would need a simple majority to win the coveted post.

A total of 594 lawmakers will take part in the election Saturday afternoon.

The acrimony over the presidential rat race could make the UML change its mind on joining a Maoist-led government.

It would then be a golden opportunity for Koirala, who would get an ally against the Maoists and the fate of Nepal’s first Maoist government would be in jeopardy even before it is announced.

Squabbling for power remains the dominant trait of Nepal’s political parties, which in the past allowed king Gyanendra to sack an elected government and impose his own men.

It also allowed him to grab power with the help of the army.

Fresh infighting among the parties would strengthen the hand of the royalists, who are waiting for an opportunity to come back to power.