Nepal's PM poll turns into farce

The squabbling parties held parliament hostage, as they have been doing repeatedly since the house was elected in 2008, delaying the election scheduled at 11 am  and continuing with negotiations heedless of the other parties. The spectre of an inconclusive prime ministerial poll or even a deferred poll loomed large after the former Maoist guerrillas, the largest party in parliament, announced they had withdrawn the uneasy support they had pledged to the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist (UML) only hours earlier.

Hopes of a communist-Maoist alliance had risen when minutes before the election was to have started, UML contestant Jhalanath Khanal had handed over a “trust document” to Maoist chief Pushpa Kamal Dahal Prachanda, pledging his party's commitment to the peace process and urging the former guerrillas to support him. Taking its call on the offer, the Maoist leadership has agreed to support Khanal if he can garner the support of additional MPs to show two-thirds majority in parliament. However, only a couple of hours later, Maoist deputy chief Baburam Bhattarai said his party had decided not to support Khanal but to field party chief Prachanda.

To add to the chaos, four ethnic parties from the Terai, whose support would have been decisive, announced in a surprise move that they would not support any of the contestants. The Terai declaration means 82 MPs will not take part in the election that needs a candidate to win at least 300 votes.

To compound the complications, the UML has said it would withdraw Khanal's nomination if he fails to get the support of at least 400 MPs in the 601-seat house. With Khanal failing to get the required support, UML MPs have been issued a whip, asking them not to vote for the two remaining candidates.

Though the prime ministerial contest will now become a duel between Prachanda and the Nepali Congress, the second largest party, with nearly 200 MPs not taking part, the outcome is an inconclusive poll. Now the house chairman may put off the poll and fix a fresh date. If he decides to go ahead, it is certain that a second round of polls has to be held.

A second round would help the parties buy more time for fresh negotiations. But given their appalling track record, an agreement even at a later stage remains questionable. The poll fiasco underscores the unreliable nature of communist politics in Nepal. The UML, which had three stints in power, has a reputation for deserting its allies. In the past it deserted its Maoist partner, causing the Prachanda government to collapse.

This time, it abandoned its coalition partner NC only to be betrayed by the Maoists in turn. Maoist chief Prachanda, on the other hand, acquires a dog in the manger image. He is being perceived as ready to support a rival party candidate rather than relinquish his own control over the party, which is already showing signs of growing dissent. Since they united against King Gyanendra's army-backed government in 2006 and caused it to collapse, Nepal's parties failed to show further statesmanship and decisiveness.

Nepali politics since the fall of the royal regime has been characterised by infighting and dithering. It made the parties fail to promulgate a new constitution in time and rehabilitate the guerrilla army of the Maoists, which remains a worrying parallel army four years after the rebels signed a peace accord.

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