Nepal’s first presidential poll ends in fiasco, repoll awaited (Second Lead)

July 19th, 2008 - 9:43 pm ICT by IANS  

By Sudeshna Sarkar
Kathmandu, July 19 (IANS) The political uncertainty in Nepal deepened Saturday after the Himalayan republic’s first presidential election, held to elect the successor to dethroned king Gyanendra as head of state, ended in a fiasco with none of the contenders able to garner the simple majority needed for victory. The election gave a stunning blow to the Maoists, who had emerged as the undoubted winners in the national election held in April, with their candidate, a 73-year-old former revolutionary, falling behind his main rival, Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala’s man Ram Baran Yadav.

Yadav, the dark horse in the race whose prospects of winning the historic election received a fillip only Saturday morning after his Nepali Congress (NC) party succeeded in cobbling a last-minute poll pact with the communists and the Terai parties, was cheated of victory by just four votes.

The 61-year-old veteran politician, who was a former minister and has roots in neighbouring India, garnered 294 votes, failing to harvest the 298 required for winning the poll.

His Maoist-backed opponent, Ram Raja Prasad Singh, won 284 votes.

Now a repoll will have to be held between Yadav and Singh. The constituent assembly, that also doubles up as Nepal’s caretaker parliament, was scheduled to sit later in the evening to announce a date for the re-election.

The house however chose the nation’s first vice-president successfully. Parmanand Jha, a former Supreme Court judge who at the centre of a controversy over a disputed verdict and was transferred to a district court as punishment, sailed through the four-cornered contest after being backed by the Terai parties.

The election became a complicated mathematical affair with only 578 lawmakers taking part. Sixteen members from four minor parties boycotted the exercise in protest.

As per the constitution, the president has to be elected by a simple majority in the house since the parliamentary parties failed to reach a consensus. The three candidates in the ring, including communist-backed Ram Preet Paswan, had a target of 298 votes.

In the morning, as voting started, it seemed Yadav would swing the election after the NC, the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist (UML) and the Terai parties reached a poll agreement.

As the NC has 113 seats, the UML 108 and the Terai parties 82, it was expected that Yadav would have an easy victory.

However, the secret ballot is likely to have seen some of the members go against their party whips to support the Maoist candidate.

In less than a week, the pendulum swung widely in the election for a post that, though ceremonial, is now also a prestige issue and will indicate the fate of the new government.

The race started when the name of Koirala, regarded as the chief architect of the pact with the Maoist insurgents that brought peace to violence-hit Nepal, was proposed for the post by party.

However, it was fiercely opposed by the Maoists, who feared Koirala’s appointment would create a formidable rival for the new government, which they expect to lead.

Initially the Maoists proposed Singh as Nepal’s first president.

More than two decades ago, Singh had led an armed struggle for a republic and set off bomb blasts at the palace in Kathmandu as well as the parliament complex.

However, Singh was unceremoniously dropped this week after the Maoists cobbled an understanding with the UML and agreed to support its candidate for president.

But in a dramatic twist on the eve of the election, the Maoists announced they would not support the UML since it was pushing its former chief Madhav Kumar Nepal, who had lost the April election from both his constituencies.

In a bolt from the blue for the communists, the former guerrillas again sprung the name of Singh as their candidate.

Though the Maoists are the largest party with 226 seats, they needed a major ally to muster a simple majority.

It seemed Singh would streak past his rivals after the Maoists patched up with their bitterest foes, the three Terai parties.

But in another dramatic turn Friday, the Terai bloc said they would not vote for Singh unless the Maoists withdrew their vice-presidential candidate, former parliamentarian Shanta Shrestha, and instead supported their Terai candidate, former judge Jha.

Meanwhile, angered by the Maoist “betrayal”, the UML formed a counter-alliance with the prime minister’s party and by Saturday had also lured the Terai parties into the fold.

Seasoned politicians indicated that the poll fiasco would have a negative impact on the peace process as well as the drafting of the new constitution, which is regarded as a key step in ushering peace and stability in Nepal.

“It is a bad omen,” NC lawmaker Gagan Thapa said. “It shows up the growing mistrust among the parties, who in the race for power are forgetting that their real mandate is to write a new constitution.”

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