Election of popular Maoist leader as PM raises hopes in Nepal

The election of Maoist Baburam Bhattarai as prime minister has Nepal cautiously optimistic that the country may have found a leader who can end more than two years of political deadlock.

Navesh Chitrakar/Reuters
New Nepali prime minister Dr. Baburam Bhattarai (L) shakes hand with Nepali congress party vice president Ram Chandra Poudel after an oath-taking ceremony at the presidential palace Shital Niwas in Kathmandu August 29.

Maoist Baburam Bhattarai became Nepal's new prime minister on Monday. His election Sunday raises hope that the country may finally have found a leader who can govern and extricate the country from more than two years of political deadlock.

Mr. Bhattarai, third-in-command of the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) that dominates the parliament, was elected on Sunday with 340 votes. His only rival, Ram Chandra Poudel of the Nepali Congress Party got 235 in the 601-member parliament that currently has 594 serving members.

Analysts say Bhattarai, a key architect of a deadly 10-year Maoist insurgency, and also the person who played a pivotal role in transitioning his party from war to peaceful politics is the best suited to lead the country among Nepal’s politicians today.

“He was the face of the Maoist party during peace negotiations in 2005 brokered by India that eventually brought the Maoists to mainstream politics in 2006,” says Narayan Wagle, chief editor of the Nagarik daily.

Given the role of India in Nepal's politics, both as a military ally and as mediator during Nepal's lengthly civil war, Bhattarai's role can serve to assure India that integrating politically indoctrinated former Maoist fighters into Nepal's Army will not destabilize that army in the process, says Mr. Wagle.

Bhattarai is also known as a task man with clear priorities.

As finance minister, Bhattarai won praise – even from his critics – for significantly exceeding government revenue targets by successfully encouraging more businesses and individuals to pay taxes.

“With Bhattarai as prime minister, Nepalese people no longer have a reason to complain about lack of leadership,” says Gunaraj Luintel, executive editor of Annapurna Post daily.

“Bhattarai has an image of an honest politician, efficient administrator and a well-read person. He knows the tasks cut out for him and can devote more energy than his unsuccessful predecessors to complete them. The country has a good prime minister now, on whom people have faith,” says Mr. Luintel.

Bhattarai’s goals

Bhattarai says he hopes to complete the peace process by settling the future of more than 19,000 Maoist former combatants, making concerted effort to draft a forward-looking constitution, and provide relief to people crushed by poverty, unemployment, and corruption.

“The country needs many things. But if I only manage to conclude the peace process and draw up a new constitution, I will have made historic achievements,” Bhattarai said addressing the parliament before the vote on Sunday.

Nepalese people appear to take Bhattarai seriously, despite having become increasingly distrustful of political leaders in the years since a special assembly was elected in 2008 to accomplish such goals.

“He is seen as a moderate in his party and has consistently argued with rivals in his party that neighbors, the international community and rival political parties need to be taken into confidence to steer the country ahead,” says Luintel. “He has the right kind of image to be able to balance international actors too, which is a must to steer forward the peace process,” Luintel adds.

Balancing the Maoist Party

But what is perhaps the biggest question facing Bhattarai today is how well his own party helps him perform as a prime minister.

“Despite his popularity, Bhattarai’s success or failure as a prime minister will depend on the internal dynamics of his own party,” warns Luintel.

Though the country’s political parties are in agreement now about what to do with some of the former Maoist fighters, a powerful faction led by the Maoist Party’s second-in-command Mohan Baidhya, a hardliner, has delayed the process.

Mr. Baidhya is bargaining over the type of positions that the former fighters should be offered in the Army, and the amount of cash those choosing rehabilitation should be offered.

But Bhattarai fortunately has the support of both Baidhya and Party Chairman Prachanda, says Wagle.

“Bhattarai earned their gratitude by preventing a recent spat between the two leaders from culminating in a vertical split in the party,” Wagle says. “Bhattarai therefore has an opportunity to prove that he was right in bringing his party to peaceful politics,” he argues.

Another factor that should ensure progress in Nepal’s political now, says Wagle, is the fact that in the opposition now are only two major parties, the Nepali Congress and the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist, both are used to parliamentary system and are less disruptive as opposition.

“In terms of obstructing political process, the Maoists have the potential to be unruly and therefore are more harmful than Congress and UML,” he says.

Meanwhile, a Supreme Court quashed on Sunday a writ petition that would have invalidated of the term extension of Nepal’s elected assembly. This has also eased the heat on political parties.

The extended term of the assembly is expiring on Aug. 31. And with the Supreme Court’s decision, the political parties are in a position to buy more time to give the country a new constitution, a key demand of the Maoists.

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