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Nepal: In Search of a Leader, Political Gridlock Continues

Two elderly men sit under a shade in Kathmandu discussing the country's politics. Nepal is holding elections to select a new prime minister for the ninth time in the last two months. Image by Anup Kaphle. Nepal, 2010.

Two elderly men sit under a shade in Kathmandu discussing the country's politics. Nepal is holding elections to select a new prime minister for the ninth time in the last two months. Image by Anup Kaphle. Nepal, 2010.

A Maoist combatants watches his comrades perform training during a session in western Nepal. Finding ways to integrate some 19,600 former rebels into the national army has been a key issue of debate among Maoist leaders and current government. Image by Anup Kaphle. Nepal, 2010.

A Maoist combatants watches his comrades perform training during a session in western Nepal. Finding ways to integrate some 19,600 former rebels into the national army has been a key issue of debate among Maoist leaders and current government. Image by Anup Kaphle. Nepal, 2010.

Imagine a country without a government. Well, welcome to Nepal.

When I visited Nepal this summer, the country had a prime minister, a barely extended life of a parliament and a working constitution. Almost a month and half ago, Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal came under Maoist pressure and agreed to resign, with the two major political parties agreeing to hold an election to fill his post. But neither candidate secured the robust backing from his rival party necessary to win a majority, causing the parliament to delay yet another election for the prime minister and prolonging the leadership vacuum in this already troubled country.

After seven rounds of voting in the parliament, the politicians have yet to elect a new leader. The biggest surprise came last week, when the only candidate in the running failed to muster even a simple majority.

The problem with Nepal's current state of political deadlock is simple: disagreement among mulish politicians over power sharing. After the general elections two years ago, the Maoist rebels who had signed a peace agreement with the government in 2006 won the popular majority, thereby giving them the mandate to lead the government. But disagreement over the controversial sacking of the army chief, led to the resignation of Maoist chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal, who had served as the prime minister for eight months.

The ninth round of voting to elect a new prime minister will be held tomorrow. But a day before the election, the lone candidate faces mounting pressure to withdraw his nomination. A withdrawal would enable the political parties to restart the process to form a national consensus government, possibly led by the Maoists. Yet the candidate and his party have been unyielding in their stance: Unless concrete deals can be reached with the Maoists, a government led by the former rebels would be unacceptable. Recent reports in Maoist tabloids about the Maoist party chairman's upcoming visit to China have raised eyebrows at home as well as in neighboring India, especially given Nepal's current political deadlock.

In the meantime, Nepal's Maoists and the Indian government are waging a war of words. India gives the Maoists little recognition, fearing a strong Chinese influence in the Himalayan country with which it shares three borders. China's recent decision to extend its railway from Lhasa to Shigatse and further into Nepal has rattled the Indian government for fear that the extension will end Kathmandu's trade dependence on India.

The Maoists blame the Indians for coercing other Nepalese political parties not to extend the term of the United Nations Mission in Nepal (UNMIN). The UNMIN has been in charge of supervising the arms and troops of the national army as well as the 19,600 Maoist combatants. The government and the Maoists made a last minute deal two weeks ago to extend the UNMIN's mandate by four months. This was the seventh extension in the last three years.

The mission's extension is key as the country now must either develop a clear plan to integrate former Maoist combatants into the army or rehabilitate them by providing financial packages. The leading political parties have expressed concerns over the prolonged stay of thousands of organized, government-salaried rebels inside closed cantonments.

Legislative impediments caused by failure to elect a new government have also brought the process of passing a new budget for the country to a standstill.

But even if Nepal succeeds in electing a new prime minister tomorrow, he will confront the challenge of rallying a country in a serious political deadlock. Add to that the integration and rehabilitation of some 19,600 former Maoist combatants who are now living inside cantonments throughout the country, among the most daunting tasks Nepal has faced since the war ended in 2006.

But the most epochal of them all: Nepal now has less than eight months to promulgate a new constitution, an undertaking that seems near impossible.