Nepal remains lost in poll labyrinth

Sunday, September 26, 2010

KATHMANDU - Deepening distrust between Nepal’s two biggest parties derailed the prime ministerial election Sunday, even after an unprecedented eighth round of voting, with most lawmakers not taking part in the exercise.

Only 118 out of the current 598 MPs cast their votes, resulting in an inconclusive election and parliament chairman Subas Nembang announcing a ninth round on Sep 30.

For the first time in Nepal’s election history, a single party - the centrist Nepali Congress (NC) - fought the election in parliament alone while its lone challenger, the opposition Maoists, withdrew their chairman, Pushpa Kamal Dahal Prachanda, from the fray.

Maoist deputy chief Dr Baburam Bhattarai Sunday told parliament that there was growing “concern and frustration” among the people after seven rounds of vote failed to elect a new premier. His party had realised that the ongoing process would be futile and it would be impossible to form a new government unless there was a national consensus.

He also urged NC candidate, former deputy prime minister Ram Chandra Poudel, to withdraw from the race so that new modalities could be worked out.

Though the 601-seat parliament unanimously allowed the Maoist chief’s nomination to be withdrawn, the NC refused to call off its candidate for fear of a double-cross.

NC chief whip Laxman Ghimire said his party would not comment on the Maoists’ proposal. At a programme Saturday, he had said the NC would not quit the ring fearing a conspiracy between the Maoists and the communists to push for communist chief Jhalanath Khanal as the new prime minister.

The Maoists had announced last week that they would not take part in Sunday’s election. The announcement came after they inked a pact with caretaker Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal’s Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML), with both parties agreeing not to vote Sunday.

The CPN-UML, the third largest party in parliament, and a front of four ethnic parties from the Terai plains have contributed to the three-month-long crisis by sitting in abstention all through.

Nepal’s constitution dictates that a candidate will have to win over half the seats in the 601-seat parliament.

But only 189 out of the current 598 MPs turned up for Sunday’s vote. Out of that, 71 abstained from voting while two voted against Poudel, who garnered only 116 votes.

While the Maoists and communists are urging the NC to quit, Nembang, has warned that it would not be possible as long as the NC candidate is in the ring.

Now, Nepal is back to the bleak scenario it faced almost three months ago when the Maoists forced the prime minister to quit.

The politics of consensus, essential for drafting a new constitution by next year, has remained deadlocked since 2008, when the parties lost their common enemy, deposed king Gyanendra, who had united them unwittingly by trying to grab power.

With monarchy now abolished and lacking an enemy to blame for their shortcomings, Nepal’s parties are back to their old squabbling for power that in the past led to a Maoist insurrection followed by a royal coup.

The ball is now in the court of the NC. With the party preoccupied with internal elections, it was on the cards that Sunday’s prime ministerial poll would be fruitless.

However, once the largest ruling party’s internal election is over, the new leaders are expected to take a final decision.

The Maoists came close to winning the prime minister’s post during the sixth round. However, their chance was nipped by the leaking of an audio tape recording conversations between Maoist lawmaker Krishna Bahadur Mahara and an unidentified male middleman.

The broker was heard agreeing to get the former rebels NRS 500 million from a “friend” in China to buy the votes of 50 Terai MPs.

Subsequently, the former guerrillas have been blaming neighbour India for their poll debacle, accusing New Delhi of being behind the tape.

Without a premier for three months, there is growing doubt whether the parties would be able to promulgate a new constitution in May 2011, after failing an earlier deadline three months ago.

Doubts are also mounting about the fate of the Maoists’ guerrilla army whose nearly 20,000 fighters have to be discharged by Jan 15.

It is the deadline laid down by the UN Security Council for its political mission in Nepal, the UN Mission in Nepal (UNMIN) that is monitoring the arms and fighters of both the army and the Maoists.

UNMIN will exit Nepal on Jan 16 and if the fate of the guerrilla combatants is not decided by then, Nepal’s fragile peace process will lose its credibility before the UN as well as western governments.

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