In The News

Q&A: Nepal Elects New Prime Minister

February 9, 2011

After nearly eight months without leadership, Nepal’s parliament has elected Jhala Nath Khanal prime minister. In Asia interviewed Asia Foundation Deputy Country Representative in Kathmandu Sagar Prasai about what this news means for the peace process and what lies ahead.

Q: Jhala Nath Khanal, chairman of the leftist Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist), has been elected prime minister of Nepal. What is the scene on the ground since this was announced?

While it makes sense that the election of Jhala Nath Khanal as the fourth prime minister of a five-year-old peace process in Nepal has been welcomed as a step in the right direction, the challenges ahead are enormous.

Q: Such as?

Although Mr. Khanal won with a comfortable majority, some after-the-fact revelations have already put a strain in the two-party coalition that voted him to power: Khanal and Prachanda – the Maoist leader and former prime minister – had signed a secret, seven-point deal that included several controversial agreements. These included: a leadership-swapping arrangement that Prachanda would become the prime minister down the line with Khanal’s support; collaboration on a constitution that pushed for a “people’s democracy” (as opposed to a liberal democracy); and a separate armed force with Maoists combatants. In addition, some of the key leaders of both parties weren’t aware of this deal until the prime ministerial election was over. While the content of the deal between Khanal and Prachanda has angered regional parties and the Nepali Congress, the secretive nature of the deal has angered key leaders of Khanal’s own party. With just 110 days left until the current tenure of the Constitutional Assembly expires, Khanal has an uphill battle to overcome in pacifying disgruntled colleagues within his party while stitching the rift with regional and center-right parties.

Q: Khanal has said that “resolving the political complexities of the country would be his first priority.” In what ways could this new leadership expedite the fragile peace process, including the issue over reintegration of nearly 20,000 former Maoist combatants into the Nepalese army?

The first challenge is to widen the two-party coalition to include regional parties, at a minimum, even if the Nepali Congress refuses to join the coalition. For this to happen, the Maoists have to give Khanal the flexibility to rework the behind-the-scene deals that got him their support. If he manages to reconstruct a new political coalition with a two-thirds majority that includes the regional parties and the Maoists, he will have to move quickly to bring the coalition to agree on a constitutional agenda and a model of integration that is acceptable to a coalition of diverse parties. He has to achieve all of this before May 28 to avoid a constitutional crisis. If a constitution is not drafted by May 28, Khanal’s prime ministership will be terminated by default.

Sagar Prasai is The Asia Foundation’s deputy country representative in Nepal. He can be reached at sprasai@asiafound.org

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