Presidential race gets sticky

Kamal Dev Bhattarai

Kamal Dev Bhattarai

Presidential race gets sticky

Nepal is set to elect its new President on March 9. This gives major political parties more than a month to nominate their candidates. But there is a rub: the ruling CPN (Maoist Center) and its primary coalition partner, CPN-UML, seem to be headed toward a conflict regarding presidential pick, and it isn’t helping that Nepali Congress is also claiming the post.

If Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal were to honor the gentleman’s agreement reached with UML leader KP Sharma Oli, the UML candidate is sure to win the presidential race. As part of a power-sharing deal, Dahal had promised to cede the prime minister’s office to Oli after 2.5 years and back UML candidates for the speaker and president’s posts.

UML’s Dev Raj Ghimire was elected the Speaker as part of the understanding between Dahal and Oli on January 19.

Prime Minister Dahal, however, is unlikely to back UML’s presidential candidate. Doing so would mean that UML would be heading the House of Representatives, the Office of the President, and after 2.5 years the executive—a terrifying prospect for both Maoist and NC.

Dahal has been using the phrase ‘national consensus’ these days when talking about the next president. That’s his euphemistic way of saying that Oli should not have the power to dictate who the president should be.

Dahal’s Maoist party has also officially decided to forge a consensus on the presidential election. But there are some leaders in the party who fear that deviating from the agreement with UML could damage the party and Dahal’s image.

The position taken by Maoist has fueled mistrust between Oli and Dahal. Some UML leaders already suspect that Dahal could break the current coalition and forge a new one with the NC, which has the most number of seats in parliament.

Narayan Dahal, standing committee member of the Maoist party, says this is something that the situation has demanded due to the lack of a clear majority in parliament and an inability of any party to form a stable coalition.

It is urgent to elect the president based on national consensus, he adds, noting that if the UML gets the presidency, there will be no one to counter its power in parliament.

UML leader Astalaxmi Shakya, however, is of the view that the Maoists should not renege on the power-sharing agreement. She says Dahal should be serious about the consensus, because he got the premiership, which is already a huge achievement for a third-placed party.

Dahal apparently has gained the courage and confidence to spurn Oli partly because the NC had given him the confidence vote on January 10.

It is clear that NC, which was relegated to the opposition benches despite winning the most number of seats in parliament, wants to break the Maoist-UML coalition and be in the governing position. The NC gave its trust vote to Dahal so that it could bargain for the posts of speaker and president. Having lost the speaker’s seat, the NC is now trying to secure the presidency. If Dahal agrees to throw his weight behind NC’s candidate, it could spell an end for Maoist-UML coalition. And if this scenario comes to pass, it would be a masterstroke on the part of NC leader Sher Bahadur Deuba, who is currently under fire for breaking up the electoral alliance with the Maoists.

Despite the risk of imminent rift with the Maoist party, UML’s Oli has rather uncharacteristically kept restraint. He and Dahal have been meeting almost on a regular basis. Keeping the current coalition intact is important for UML. When Oli agreed to back Dahal’s prime ministerial bid, he did so because his party had the upper hand numberwise. Even though the Maoist, third-placed party in parliament, led the government, the UML was in the position to call the shots as the kingmaker. But the situation changed after NC gave its vote of confidence to Dahal.

If the UML were to ditch the coalition, Dahal is confident that he will have NC to back him.

In such a situation, UML will be out of power both at the center as well as in provinces. Oli knows this very well. If he wants to safeguard the coalition, he better not create a stink about not getting the presidency. At any rate, Dahal is unlikely to hand over the presidency to the UML—that is unless Oli agrees to sacrifice the promised premiership after 2.5 years.

Dahal could even be fancying a chance of becoming a full term prime minister if the NC were to join the ruling coalition.

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