KATHMANDU - Clouds of political uncertainty hanging over Nepal have lifted
somewhat as a prime minister acceptable to all factions was finally found at
the 17th attempt. On Sunday, President Ram Baran Yadav administered the oath of
office to Jhalanath Khanal.
The 60-year-old leader of the Unified-Marxist Leninist (UML) party, takes over
from Madhav Kumar Nepal, who had served in a caretaker role since resigning
last June and is from the same moderate communist party.
Khanal will have no time for niceties. As he attempts to revive Nepal's
flagging peace process and meet a May 28 deadline for a
much-delayed new constitution, the new prime minister also faces an immediate
crisis in his attempts to form a government.
Despite previous deals, Khanal's main coalition partner, the Maoist party led
by Pushpa Kamal Dahal (also known as Prachanda), has been unable to agree on
the distribution of key portfolios such as the ministries of home affairs,
finance, and foreign affairs.
Khanal is seeking to build a "broad coalition" - as has been suggested by
Western diplomats in Kathmandu - so he can ensure a two-thirds majority in the
601-member Constitution Assembly needed to pass a new constitution.
However, there are 28 parties in the assembly, with some clearly opposed to a
leftist-dominated alliance that would "capture" power and perpetuate it,
possibly through rigged elections. They have seen such a scenario in the nearby
Indian state of West Bengal.
The unexpected sequence of events leading to Khanal's appointment began last
week. As the assembly gathered after 16 failed attempted to find a premier, the
number of candidates had risen from three to four and hopes for a breakthrough
Analysts had began drawing comparisons with a political impasse in Iraq, where
a caretaker administration only recently ended after governing for 249 days. Or
Belgium, which has been led by a caretaker prime minister for the past 230 days
and looks likely to beat Iraq's record. But Defying predictions, the assembly
elected Khanal with a clear majority - 368 of the 598 votes cast.
The result was both a surprise for Nepal watchers and a much-needed relief to
the people of a country in transition to peace from a decade of civil war. The
breakthrough was made possible by Prachanda, who withdrew his own candidacy and
extended his party's support to Khanal.
The 237 votes from the Maoists, the strongest party in Nepal since April 2008
elections, proved decisive, with the two remaining contenders, Nepali Congress
parliamentary party leader Ram Chandra Paudel and Madhes Janaadhikar
Forum-Democratic chairman Bijaya Kumar Gachhadar, facing a resounding defeat.
Why did Prachanda, the strongest among the four contestants, choose to leave
the field at such a late stage? It appears that the entry of a fourth candidate
the previous day - Gachhadar - had made him jittery.
Prachanda hurriedly convened a meeting of senior party colleagues in one of the
rooms attached to the assembly building, receiving approval to withdraw his
nomination and direct his party's support towards Khanal. Baburam Bhattarai,
one his three vice chairmen, dissented but his opinion was overruled.
According to Prachanda, Indian interference was the main hurdle to him resuming
the premiership. He was sworn in as prime minister in August 2008. Due mainly
to external factors, his tenure lasted just nine months.
Delhi tends to suspect that Prachanda is too close to China, a perception
viewed locally as a bit of an exaggeration. However, the Maoist party has
raised popular resentment against the Indian government.
Prachanda's decision to sacrifice himself was a calculated maneuver, according
to analysts. To start with, the election of Khanal with Maoist support signals
to Delhi - and its allies in the West - that Prachanda is a force to be
Prachanda's position is comparable to that of Congress party leader Sonia
Gandhi in India, who is seen as a guiding hand for Prime Minister Manmohan
The other significant gain Prachanda made was in an enhanced image of authority
over dissenters within his Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist). The likes
of Baburam Bhattarai will not think of challenging Prachanda's leadership in
the foreseeable future.
Meanwhile, the political parties that are unlikely to join the
soon-to-be-formed ruling coalition are already painting it as a dangerous
leftist alliance set to erode democratic values.
"We are obviously watching closely if the Maoist-dominated coalition honors its
pledge to abide by the democratic principles it agreed to," said Congress
legislator Deepkumar Upadhyaya, alluding to a 2006 pact between the Maoists and
leaders of a seven-party alliance.
He wants Prachanda to allay fears that over a "secret deal" he reportedly made
with Khanal a couple of hours before the crucial vote on Thursday. One of the
seven alleged points in that controversial deal was the provision for a
"high-level mechanism" which is to be chaired by Khanal and Prachanda.
There are also fears the leaders agreed that former Maoist combatants now
sheltered in supervised cantonments may be formed into a separate fighting
force under the government, in breach of agreement to integrate them into the
Nepal army and other security agencies.
If the Maoists deviate from the agreed path, a sharp polarization of leftist
and non-leftist forces would be unavoidable. Observers say this would create a
power vacuum that China could step into as part of a plan to "encircle" India.
Those who share Delhi's concerns over Khanal's leanings observed closely the
Chinese ambassador's promptness in meeting the newly-elected prime minister at
his private residence. While Khanal's predecessor was often seen as a "puppet"
of India, Khanal has certainly not inherited this baggage.