Re-poll fear haunts Nepal’s first presidential race

By Sudeshna Sarkar, IANS,

Kathmandu : As the new republic of Nepal Saturday embarks on its first presidential election to replace dethroned king Gyanendra as head of state, the fear of re-poll casts a dark cloud with the major parties still at loggerheads over the presidential candidates.

Support TwoCircles

Hectic lobbying continued hours before the historic election, with the four top parties trying to woo support for their own candidates so that a re-poll could be avoided.

In less than a week, the pendulum has swung widely in the election for a post that, though ceremonial, is now also a prestige issue and will indicate the fate of the new government.

The race started when Nepal’s newly elected constituent assembly, which is also the caretaker parliament, this month 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 a 73-year-old infirm former revolutionary, Ram Raja Prasad Singh. More than two decades ago, Singh had led an armed struggle for a republic and set off bomb blasts at the palace in Kathmandu as well as parliament complex.

However, Singh was unceremoniously dropped this week after the Maoists cobbled an understanding with the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist (UML). While the Maoists agreed to support the UML candidate for president, UML was ready to join a Maoist-led government.

But in a dramatic 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.

In a bolt from the blue for the UML, the former guerrillas again sprung the name of Singh as their candidate.

To win the election, a candidate has to get a simple majority in the caretaker house that currently has 594 members. The Maoists are the largest party with 226 seats. But for the magic number of 298, they need a major ally.

It seemed Singh would streak past his rivals after the Maoists patched up with their bitterest foes, the three parties from the Terai plains who together account for 82 seats. The Terai support would have seen the Maoists through.

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, and instead supported the Terai candidate, former judge Parmanand Jha.

Meanwhile, angered by the Maoist “betrayal”, the UML has sprung a presidential candidate of its own and begun making overtures to the NC. The former has 108 seats and the latter 113. Together, they are now courting the Terai parties to pip the Maoists to the post.

If they succeed, the Maoist bid to form the government after the presidential election may be foiled by the other two big parties, who could try to put up a coalition government.

The minor parties are yet to say who they would support in the fierce tussle. The only avowed royalist party in the house, the Rastriya Prajatantra Party (Nepal) that has four members, has announced it will boycott the election.

If none of the candidates manages to swing a simple majority, a re-poll will have to be held among the top two. The election result will be announced by Friday evening.

Besides Maoists’ Singh, the other two presidential contestants are the NC’s senior leader Ram Baran Yadav and the UML-supported Ram Preet Paswan, a former parliamentarian.

There are four contenders for the post of vice-president, including two women. The Maoists are backing their own senior leader Shanta Shrestha, with the UML pitching its own central committee member Ashta Laxmi Shakya and the NC Man Bahadur Bishwokarma, who comes from the Dalit community once regarded as untouchables and still at the bottom of Nepal’s social hierarchy.