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Nepal's new prime minister raises hopes of democratic momentum

The election of Sushil Koirala brings together Nepal's two largest parties and raises expectations that a lengthy peace process with Maoist rebels could be capped with a new constitution.

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Nepal's newly elected prime minister, Sushil Koirala, waves to the media at the Constitution Assembly Hall in Katmandu, Nepal, Monday, Feb. 10, 2014. Mr. Koirala, the leader of Nepal's largest and oldest political party was elected prime minister on Monday with majority support in parliament, which is likely to ease the political instability in the Himalayan nation.

Niranjan Shrestha/AP

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Nepal elected Sushil Koirala the new prime minister by an overwhelming majority on Monday in a vote that has raised hopes for stability and progress toward a democratic constitution.

Mr. Koirala, who is president of the Nepali Congress party and ran unchallenged, is now forming a government in coalition with Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML). The union brings together the country's two largest parties, both of which have supported multiparty democracy for more than two decades.

Addressing the parliament on Monday, Koirala, who comes from a political dynasty that has produced four prime ministers, pledged to implement a democratic constitution within a year, as well as encourage domestic and foreign investment.

Koirala's election represents a possible breakthrough in a political system that has been gripped by deadlock. In November, Nepal elected its second constituent assembly, which doubles as its parliament. The assembly is tasked with finalizing a new federal constitution that a previous assembly, which was elected in 2008 and changed Nepal into a republic, failed to achieve.

A new constitution would cap a seven-year-old peace process with Maoist former rebels who waged an insurgency for 10 years in pursuit of a new constitution and the abolition of the monarchy. The protracted process has churned through six prime ministers, none of whom were able to achieve the necessary compromise to help the country move beyond deep political uncertainty that has kept investors away and prompted many Nepalese to leave the country.  

“This is a natural coalition, and a good sign for stability and a new constitution,” said Guna Raj Luitel, executive editor of Annapurna Post daily. “Though CPN-UML is a communist party, it has embraced the ideals of multiparty democracy in the past decades. This coalition will ensure a new constitution because there is immense pressure to complete the task. Besides, I don’t think Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), the main opposition, will obstruct the process. They have already paid for doing so.”

The Unified Communist Party of Nepal, which garnered the most votes in the 2008 election, was reduced to a distant third in the November election. It won just 80 seats, while Nepali Congress and CPN-UML won 196 and 175 seats respectively. The Maoists' insistence on what many saw as a radical agenda for a new constitution – most notably, establishing a presidential system, and a federal structure based on ethnicity – was the main reason why the previous assembly was dissolved in a deadlock.

The Nepali Congress and CPN-UML parties want a prime minister as the country’s executive head, although they differ on whether the prime minister should be elected by a parliament or directly. The two parties are also against ethnicity-based federalism, which they argue is unviable. Nepal has 125 ethnicities and 123 languages.

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Pradeep Gyawali, spokesman of CPN-UML, said the government will be stable, as it has a majority in parliament of around two-thirds. “There is no possibility of a coalition outside this one," he said. "But we will not isolate the Maoists as they are an integral part of the political process.”

Mr. Gyawali said the coalition will address legitimate demands of the Maoists, but will oppose what he said were their more radical agendas. “Voting will take a decision on the key sticking points,” he said, adding that the only challenge the coalition might face could emerge from within. “Our coalition culture is poor. But this time, there is a lot of pressure from the people and the international community to conclude the transition by promulgating a new constitution. So I am optimistic,” he said.

But Narayan Wagle, former editor of Nagarik daily, warned that being coalition bedfellows does not necessarily mean the country’s largest and second largest parties will decide to take identical positions vis-à-vis a new constitution.

“They were the main political rivals before the Maoists emerged as a new political force in 2008. Now that the Maoists have been cut to size, the two parties might again resume their old rivalry,” he said. 


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