PM’s party edges past Maoists in Nepal presidential poll

By Sudeshna Sarkar, IANS,

Kathmandu : As Nepal’s lawmakers began voting Saturday in the Himalayan republic’s first presidential election to replace dethroned king Gyanendra as head of state, a new dramatic development indicated a surprise victory for the Nepali Congress (NC) with the Maoists headed for a rude shock.

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Within 72 hours, the needle had swung from a potential communist first president to a Maoist backed old revolutionary to the NC candidate of veteran politician, Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala.

Voting opened with the dice loaded heavily in favour of a 61-year-old seasoned politician from Koirala’s NC after the party pulled off a last-minute poll pact with two major parties.

The poll result will have far-reaching consequences. Now the Maoist bid to form the government may also be foiled by the new alliance that could try to put up a coalition government.

Ram Baran Yadav, a medical doctor from Sapahi village in Nepal’s border district of Dhanusha, whose ancestors came from India, could be the first president of Nepal, pipping the earlier favourite, 73-year-old revolutionary Ram Raja Prasad Singh, who is being backed by the Maoists.

The emergence of dark horse Yadav as the new favourite for the fiercely contested post came after the NC reached a hasty agreement with the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist (UML) and a bloc of three regional parties from the Terai plains.

The top leaders of the three Terai parties met ahead of the election Saturday to agree that they would support Yadav for president. In exchange, the new allies will vote for the Terai parties’ vice-presidential candidate Parmanand Jha and, at a later date, support the UML candidate for the post of chairman of the newly elected constituent assembly.

If the pact holds, it will be a stunning defeat for the Maoists, who are still high on their unexpected victory in the national election in April, which helped them become the biggest party in the house with 226 members.

However, the Maoists still need 72 votes more in the 594-member constituent assembly for a simple majority, in order to form the next government or push their candidate through as president.

Till Thursday, they had been assured of that with the three Terai parties – who together hold 82 seats in the house – pledging their support.

But in a dramatic turn of events Friday, the Terai bloc warned they would not vote for Maoist-backed Singh if their own vice-presidential candidate, former judge Parmanand Jha, was not supported by the Maoists.

The jousting began this month when Nepal’s newly elected constituent assembly amended the constitution and created the post of a president in place of a constitutional king.

Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala, regarded as the chief architect of the pact with the Maoist insurgents that brought peace to violence-hit Nepal, was proposed for the post by his Nepali Congress (NC) party.

However, it was fiercely opposed by the Maoists, who feared Koirala’s appointment would create a formidable rival for the new government, which they expect to lead.

Initially the Maoists proposed the name of Singh. However, Singh was unceremoniously dropped this week after the Maoists cobbled an understanding with the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist (UML).

But in yet another twist on the eve of the election, the Maoists announced they would not support the UML since it was pushing its former chief Madhav Kumar Nepal, who had lost the April election from both his constituencies, and again sprung the name of Singh as their candidate.

It seemed Singh would streak past his rivals after the Maoists patched up with their bitterest foes, the Terai parties.

But in another dramatic turn Friday, the Terai parties said they would not vote for Singh unless the Maoists withdrew their vice-presidential candidate, former parliamentarian Shanta Shrestha.

Meanwhile, angered by the Maoist “betrayal”, the UML sprung a presidential candidate of its own and begun making overtures to the Nepali Cngress. The UML has 108 seats and the NC 113.

Now with the NC, UML and Terai parties having reached an understanding, the Maoists are likely to bite the dust.