Terai divided as Nepal searches for president

By Sudeshna Sarkar, IANS,

Kathmandu : A deep rift in Nepal’s Terai plains became clear Monday as the new republic held presidential polls again to choose a successor for deposed king Gyanendra after the first historic election Saturday ended in a fiasco with none of the three candidates able to pull off the simple majority required for victory.

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The contest Monday narrowed down to two rivals of Indian origin fielded by the two largest parties who exhausted the gamut of poll alliances to try and wrest a win for their nominees.

As Nepal’s lawmakers began voting at 8 a.m., both the Maoists and Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala’s Nepali Congress (NC) party said they would win the contest for a post that, though ceremonial, has become a prestige issue and an indication of the fate of the new government to be formed after the election.

“NC candidate Ram Baran Yadav will win since today’s election will choose Nepal’s first president on the basis of consensus,” said NC lawmaker Nilambar Acharya, who was also one of the drafters of the previous constitution.

“Our nominee Ram Raja Prasad Singh will win as the parties that had boycotted Saturday’s election will vote in our favour today,” Maoist legislator Agni Sapkota said.

The fiercely contested election, which saw new alliances being struck up and discarded, Monday saw the Terai region, which has emerged as the kingmaker in recent times, sharply divided over the two rivals, both of whom hail from there.

The three major ethnic parties from the Terai, which had been supporting the Maoists first and then, on the eve of the Saturday election switched allegiance to the NC, are now going to Monday’s election separately.

While the largest Terai party, the Madhesi Janadhikar Forum (MJF), has expressed support for Yadav, its smaller allies, the Terai Madhes Loktantrik Party and Sadbhavana Party have promised to vote for the Maoist candidate.

As the three-hour voting began, Yadav seemed to be the favoured candidate. Besides 112 legislators from his own party, he has the backing of the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist that has 108 seats, the MJF that has 52 seats and five other minor parties. Calculations indicated Yadav, 61, could garner 299 votes while 298 is needed to win.

On the other hand, Singh, a 73-year-old former revolutionary, is backed by the Maoists, the largest party in the assembly with 226 seats, three Terai parties that together account for 32 seats and four more minor parties. Singh is regarded as being assured of 270 seats but will need to swing 28 more to vanquish Yadav.

Saturday’s failed election saw Yadav emerge as the frontrunner with 283 votes while Singh polled 270. The contest saw the third aspirant, UML’s Ram Preet Paswan, knocked out of the election as his party entered a last-minute poll pact with the PM’s party.

With 25 votes being declared invalid and 16 lawmakers from fringe parties boycotting the election, a decisive victory could not be garnered by either of the rivals.

As the nation awaited the result of the run-off, there were, however, indications that the election would have far-reaching effects on the peace process and the fate of the new government.

It exposed the instability of political alliances and the deepening divide between the Terai parties as well as the growing isolation of the Maoists.

While Maoist chief Prachanda condemned the opposition alliance as an “unholy one”, the alliance accused the Maoists of “betrayal” and “arrogance”.

NC Minister for Peace and Reconstruction Ram Chandra Poudel also said that the breach of trust shown by the Maoists would come in the way of the merger of the Maoist army with the state army, which, in turn, is bound to adversely affect the peace process and the drafting of a new constitution.