Friday, July 25, 2008

A Witness to History

Kanti Path, one of Kathmandu’s busiest, noisiest and smoggiest streets, was eerily quiet on my walk home day before yesterday. In fact there were no vehicles or bikes at all ...just the sidewalks crammed with several hundred people watching the empty road. Just as I was approaching a fellow Nepali to issue an inquiry I received my answer, visually: the motorcade carrying Nepal’s newly elected President and VP was speeding by, flanked and followed by numerous military police vehicles. They were on the way to the Palace for the swearing in ceremonies.

Emerging from the “most extreme period” (to quote my friend Prof. Saubhagya Shah) in her 235+ year history, Nepal, throught the vote of the Constituent Assembly, elected her FIRST-EVER President and VP.

Those elected were a surprise to many Nepalis and much of the world. Since the Maoist Party won the popular vote and the most seats in the Constituent Assembly, their leader “Prachanda” had been lobbying and jockeying for the top post.

However, the Maoists were left temporarily out in the cold as the final behind-closed-doors negotiations between the varous parties unfolded. The original plan had been to share power by letting the Maoists lead the government under the prime ministership, but set aside the presidency for the Nepali Congress (NC) and the chairmanship of the assembly for the UML (moderate Marxist-Leninists). However, the Maoists insisted on being both head of state and head of government, while the NC insisted on Girija Koirala as its president. An alliance between the Maoists and the UML broke down when promises made became promises broken. Throw in the Madhesi party (MJF - remember - they're the populus Terai-based party that wanted to become their own automous state) eager to align with whomever they could share power, and you have the result.

The Winners?
The run-off voting for President saw 590 ballots being cast, with Dr. Ram Baran Yadav (Nepali Congress Party) getting 308 votes and the Maoist candidate Ram Raja Prasad Singh scoring 280 according to an unofficial tally. His election was a result of an Nepali Congress (NC)- United Marxist Leninist (UML) –Madhesi Front (MJF) alliance which spelled an end to the ill-fated Maoist-UML bond, and widened the gap between the parties. Dr. Yadav is a physician and former health minister of Madhesi ethnicity who is seen as a moderate. He had previously remained a loyalist, refusing to defect to join the Madhesi movement saying it would fragment the country. So, he is Madhesi but not a member of the MJF. Some would call him “old guard” and with the Nepali Congress soundly defeated in the April election most see his win this week as a surprise. He has two children educated and living in the U.S. and one in the U.K. The VP is named Pradesh Jha. Interestingly, though HIS oath delivered in Nepali, he recited it in Hindu, causing some sort of minor international incident. Some members of the Madhesi party and some living in the Terai are closely aligned with political influence from India so this is interpreted by some to be anti-nationalist.

Despite the MJF's opposition to Dr. Yadav, the election of Madhesis as president and vice-president, analysts say, will go some way in redressing the grievances of the Terai -based people that they have traditionally been under-represented in the political power structure in Kathmandu.

So where does all of this leave the Maoists? – crafters of the ten year violent insurgency and winners of April’s popular election?
CPN-Maoist chairman Prachanda said his party would sit on the opposition benches, as their presidential candidate lost the historic run-off. Addressing a press conference of party secretariat organized in Singha Durbar, Prachanda termed the alliance between NC, CPN-UML and Madhesi Janadhikar Forum ‘unholy, revengeful and apolitical’ and warned of a political confrontation in the days ahead. The Maoists, being the leading party in the Constituent Assembly, are responsible for leading the government and the crafting of the constitution.
Interesting, interesting, and definitely worth watching.


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