Sitting Here in Limbo – Nepal’s PM Elections Fail

Despite a six-hour delay in the voting process to allow for desperate last-minute negotiations, Nepal’s crucial parliamentary election for Prime Minister, the third change of government in two years, ended today with no candidate able to attain a majority.

Each of the three major parties – the ex-rebel Maoists, the center-left UML, and the center-right Nepali Congress – fielded its own candidate for the race. In a rare show of intra-party unity, Congress voted unanimously to forward Ram Chandra Poudel, former speaker of the House of Representatives, as their candidate, as the other two Congress factions conceding their preferred candidates in hope of taking control of the government.

The UML, divided into two camps – one supporting recently-resigned Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal and the other backing party chairman Jalanath Khanal, engaged in days of acrimonious debate before putting forward Khanal’s nomination with the proviso that if he could not command a two-thirds majority in the Constituent Assembly, Nepal’s interim parliament that is also charged with writing a new constitution, he would withdraw and party members would abstain from voting in the election.

The Maoists, who hold the largest block in the Assembly, were also deeply divided between supporters of past prime minister and party supremo Pushpa Kamal Dahal, still known by his nom-de-guerre Prachanda, and the party’s second-in-command Dr Baburam Bhatterai. The Prachanda faction prevailed, but faced with no support at all from any of the other 24 parties in the Assembly, agreed to back Khanal in a “progressive alliance” if Khanal could, with their votes, reach the two-thirds mark.

The fourth major block of votes, parties from Nepal’s southern plains who are in favor of a single southern state that would maximize their political clout, withdrew from the election at the last minute. None of the major parties supports their “one Madesh [their name for the southern region], one province” demand.

With the southerners’ withdrawal, the votes available in the election shrunk from 599 to 517, and without the UML’s 103 votes, no party was able to command a simple majority, let alone the two-thirds plurality necessary for consensus as defined by the interim constitution and also required to ratify a new constitution. Speakers from the smaller parties flayed all three major-party candidates for their lust for power instead of acting in the national interest.

The Congress party was deeply stung by the UML’s refusal to support Poudel, support they had expected in return for their backing of M. K. Nepal’s government. The Maoists too had hoped to obtain the votes of the southern block and fringe leftist parties: they are only 80 votes short of a majority in the Assembly. But their record of broken promises and their unwillingness to concede to the other parties’ demand that they proceed with integration and rehabilitation of their “people’s army” and de-militarize their militia left them bereft of support.

Whence now? Back to the drawing board and another round of negotiations. But given the deep divisions within each party, their unwillingness to compromise, and the focus of politicians of every stripe on themselves rather than the nation’s welfare, little constructive progress can be expected anytime soon.