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Maoists have edge as Nepal elects new PM

By Sudeshna Sarkar, IANS,

Kathmandu : As Nepal’s parliament Sunday readied to hold its fourth vote in three years to elect a new prime minister, the former Maoist guerrillas enjoyed an edge over their rivals, the democrats, by virtue of being the largest party in the house.

Maoist deputy chief Dr Baburam Bhattarai, a former finance minister, is closer to the winning post since his party has 237 seats in the 601-seat parliament and he would need 60-odd votes more from the other parties to reach simple majority.

His rival, Ramchandra Poudel of the Nepali Congress party, the second largest party, received a shot in the arm ahead of the polls with the third largest party, the communists, announcing they would support Poudel.

However, despite the 108 communist MPs behind him, Poudel still faces an uphill task as his party has only 114 lawmakers.

The key to the election is in the hands of a bloc of five parties from the Terai plains, who command nearly 70 seats together.

Unlike the last election that spanned over seven months and saw 17 rounds of voting in parliament, Sunday’s election will be decisive due to a change in the poll regulations that prevents lawmakers from absenting themselves or staying neutral.

The Maoists, who after fighting a 10-year war signed a peace accord in 2006 and won the election in 2008, are now offering to disband their guerrilla army within 45 days of forming the new government under their leadership.

The existence of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) with its nearly 20,000 fighters even five years after the insurgency ended is regarded as the main obstacle to the peace process and led to the fall of the first Maoist government of Nepal in 2009.

Bhattarai is regarded as the moderate face of the Maoists, whose chief Pushpa Kamal Dahal Prachanda failed to return to power after backtracking on his promise to demobilise the PLA, return the properties captured by the rebels during the civil war, and end the culture of impunity that saw both the state and Maoists carry out torture and extrajudicial killings.

The new premier will face an acid test soon.

Three days later, parliament needs to enforce a new constitution or face dissolution.

Nepal’s major parties, warring for power, failed to write the new constitution despite the deadline being extended twice. Now the caretaker government of outgoing minister Jhala Nath Khanal is seeking to extend the Aug 31 deadline by three months more.

If the extension comes through, the new premier will have to win the support of all the major parties and ready the first draft of the constitution as well as discharge the PLA.

(Sudeshna Sarkar can be contacted at [email protected])