Maoists lose crucial ally in presidential race

July 18th, 2008 - 7:43 pm ICT by IANS  

By Sudeshna Sarkar
Kathmandu, July 18 (IANS) Nepal’s first presidential election Saturday, that would elect a new head of state to replace deposed king Gyanendra, turned into a fierce joust among the top parties, with the last ally of the Maoists threatening to withdraw support at the nth hour. As the three candidates from Nepal’s three ruling parties Friday began campaigning in the caretaker parliament to garner majority support among the 594 members, Ram Raja Prasad Singh, the Maoist nominee who had seemed poised to sweep the polls, received a glancing blow with the Madhesi Janadhikar Forum (MJF) saying it would not support Singh unless the Maoists returned the favour.

The MJF is asking the Maoists, the largest party in the house, to withdraw their candidate, former parliamentarian Shanta Shrestha, from the race for vice-president and support MJF nominee, former judge Parmanand Jha.

Otherwise, they have threatened not to vote for Singh in a contest where their vote is crucial for victory.

Though a merely ceremonial post, Nepal’s presidential election has generated surprising animosity among the top parties and is now threatening to derail the fragile peace process as well.

The Maoists made a bitter enemy of Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala and his Nepali Congress (NC) party by fiercely opposing Koirala as president, saying the 83-year-old’s age and failing health disqualified him for the post.

As a result, the NC, that has 113 seats in the house, has announced it would not join a Maoist-led government.

On Friday, the slighted party delivered a greater blow with NC minister for peace and reconstruction Ram Chandra Poudel announcing that the Maoists had shown themselves to be untrustworthy, which would prevent the integration of the Maoist army with the state army, that was one of the basic tenets of the peace pact signed between the Maoists and the major parties.

Poudel said that the nearly 20,000 combatants of the Maoists’ People’s Liberation Army, who have been corralled in cantonments monitored by the UN, would now have to be rehabilitated in other sectors, a statement that is likely to anger the Maoists.

Till Wednesday, the Maoists had agreed to support the candidate of the third largest party, the Communist party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist (UML).

However, when the UML said it would field its former chief and political heavyweight Madhav Kumar Nepal for president, the Maoists came up with Singh as their nominee.

Angered by the “betrayal”, the UML has now come up with its own candidate for president - a former parliamentarian and Dalit Ram Preet Paswan. It has also announced it would not join a Maoist-led government.

The former guerrillas, who have 226 members in the house, were banking on the support of the MJF and its allies, who together have 82 seats. A combined Maoist-MJF vote would have seen Singh garner over 300 votes, when just 298 is needed to win the race.

However, now with the MJF withdrawing support, Singh’s position becomes precarious. If the NC reaches an understanding with the UML and are able to swing the MJF vote, they would still have the upper hand.

While the UML candidate Ram Preet Paswan Friday made an impassioned appeal to empower Nepal’s underprivileged Dalit community, to which he belongs, and NC man and veteran politician Dr Ram Baran Yadav spoke about the need for consensus among the parties, the Maoist candidate cut a sorry figure.

The 73-year-old Singh, who walks with the help of a walking stick, needed an aide to propel him inside the hall. He made his election speech sitting down and came to a complete halt for nearly a minute while a Maoist lawmaker had to pour him a glass of water.

The former revolutionary, who says he was inspired by his meeting with Che Guevera and plotted a series of bomb attacks in Nepal two decades ago to overthrow Nepal’s powerful monarchy, has also been drawn into a controversy after a communist leader alleged on a TV show that Singh was being backed by the Indian government.

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