Sudeshna Sarkar, Kathmandu
The chief of Nepal’s ruling communist party, who was slapped by a disgruntled former supporter for holding the nation to ransom for seven months, managed to woo the opposition Maoists Thursday to become Nepal’s 34th prime minister after 16 unprecedented rounds of fruitless voting.
Jhalanath Khanal, chairman of the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist whose own party had unceremoniously pulled him out of the earlier elections, polled 368 votes and a clear majority to clinch a decisive victory after Maoist chief Pushpa Kamal Dahal, also knowns as Prachanda (The fierce one) withdrew his nomination to support him.
His rivals, Ram Chandra Poudel of the Nepali Congress got 122 votes and Bijay Kumar Gacchedar of the Madhesi Janadhikar Forum-Democratic got only 67 votes.
Prachanda withdrew his nomination after a last-ditch poll alliance with Khanal, blaming India for the fall of his government two years ago. “I am withdrawing my nomination to end people’s sufferings,” the former revolutionary said. “I hope this will take the peace process and drafting of the new constitution to their conclusion.”
Prachanda, who said he had spent a sleepless night Wednesday realizing the poll would remain fruitless yet again unless the parties made sacrifices but there was no one else to do that save the Maoists.
Taking a last swipe at New Delhi, whom his party has been accusing of trying to keep the Maoists away from power, Prachanda said, “We want good relations with our neighbor but we won’t brook interference. My withdrawal is to prove that we (Nepalis) can decide our fate on our own.”
Khanal, 61, a former information and communications minister, pledged his government would rehabilitate the nearly 20,000 fighters of the Maoists’ guerrilla army within 90 days.
The presence of the People’s Liberation Army even five years after the Maoists signed a peace accord and ended their decade-old People’s War has remained an insurmountable barrier in the flagging peace negotiations, threatening to derail the peace process.
On the eve of the 17th round of election Thursday, the stage had been set for a four-way fight. While three of the contestants — Prachanda, Khanal and Ram Chandra Poudel of the centrist Nepali Congress — were the same leaders who had fought the earlier race, a new candidate — deputy Prime Minister Bijay Kumar Gachhedar — entered the fray at the last moment.
Preliminary indications portended the 17th round would fail too, leading to two more rounds of sparring during the weekend.
However, minutes before the election started, the Maoists’ standing committee held an emergency meeting to decide it would support Khanal.
The last-minute poll alliance between the communists and Maoists was flayed as ‘hypocrisy’ and a ‘conspiracy’ by Poudel, whose party had been a staunch ally of the communists in the earlier government.
Though Khanal’s victory ends a seven-month-long crisis, it does not bode well for Nepal.
The communists have been the most unreliable ally. They befriended the Maoists in 2008 to form a ruling coalition and were the first to abandon the former guerrillas. They followed the same strategy with the Nepali Congress.
Khanal himself played a major role in forcing his party peer Madhav Kumar Nepal to resign as prime minister in June 2008. Though Nepal’s government had enjoyed majority support, Khanal claimed the country needed an all-party government and he was the man to accomplish the feat.
But when he failed to win wide support and was withdrawn by his own party, Khanal forced the communists to abstain from voting through all 16 rounds, contributing to the long impasse.
For that, he was slapped at a public meeting by a protesting former supporter, who became hailed as a national hero by the people for the act.
The new Maoist-communist government is going to be an alarming development for India. Prachanda’s latest outburst indicates diplomatic ties with New Delhi are not going to improve.
Moreover, though Khanal was elected to parliament in the 2008 election, he lacks the stature of former PMs like Girija Prasad Koirala and Prachanda. It therefore remains to be seen if his leadership will be able to see Nepal get a new constitution by May 28.
(Sudeshna Sarkar can be contacted at email@example.com)