The race for Shital Nibas

Major parties discuss presidential nominees ahead of date for filing candidacies on Saturday and election on 9 March

So fierce is the competition between Nepal’s three major parties to have a say in who the next ceremonial president is that it is threatening to break the governing coalition.

Which is puzzling, why are they concerned about a post that is largely symbolic and with residual constitutional powers? Because all the three parties have since 2017 misused (or been the victims of) the misuse of presidential powers. 

On Saturday, 25 February political parties will officially register their candidates for the presidential election set to take place on 9 March. There are many trial balloons being floated with names of potential candidates which include former prime ministers, ministers, top party leadership, as well as non-partisan figures.

From the Nepali Congress (NC) the names floating around include Ram Chandra Paudel, Krishna Prasad Sitaula, and even former Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba himself. Possible candidates from the UML include Ishwar Pokharel, Subhas Chandra Nembang, Bishnu Rimal, and Asta Laxmi Shakya.

CPN-Unified Socialist Chair Madhav Kumar Nepal as well as Nepal Socialist Party leader Baburam Bhattarai’s names have also come up in connection with the presidency. Mahanta Thakur of the Loktantrik Samajwadi Party has also been proposed as a candidate.

Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal is in the horns of a dilemma because he has promised the presidency to the NC, UML as well as his own party’s leaders. This means he is bound to disappoint and make enemies of everyone who does not make it to Shital Nibas on 9 March. 

Read also: Constitutional President, Editorial

The decision should have been simple. On 25 December, Dahal broke his party’s alliance with the NC and erstwhile Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba to form a coalition with the UML and five other parties, in return for the UML getting the presidency. 

But Sher Bahadur Deuba threw a spanner in the works when he gave his party’s vote of confidence to Dahal on 10 January, keeping the door open for future political collaboration between the NC and Dahal’s Maoist Centre (MC).

And while the prime minister has maintained that his coalition will remain intact beyond 9 March, he has refused to guarantee a UML candidate for head of state.

“The ground reality has shifted between then and now,” spokesperson Krishna Bahadur Mahara said following the MC’s meeting to discuss the presidential election on Monday. 

The NC’s Deuba, Paudel, Sitaula, Gagan Thapa, and Bimalendra Nidhi have visited Dahal many times, apparently to assure him that he will get to be prime minister for five years if the NC gets the presidency.

Read also: Geopolitical tectonics, Editorial

This a lollipop for Dahal, who would otherwise have to rotate prime ministership with Oli. And the UML would get to be all-powerful if it also gets to have a president as well as speaker, prime minister, and other heads of constitutional bodies.

The Maoists have maintained that it will seek a ‘national consensus’ in appointing the next head of state, which is another way of saying ‘anyone but a UML candidate’. 

But while allying with the NC might mean that Dahal can avoid a power imbalance with the UML, Dahal has concerns that NC may pull the rug before his tenure runs out. Multiple high-ranking Indian and US officials have made visits to Nepal in the days leading up to the presidential election, and Dahal suspects that they do not like Communists in general.

Dahal and Oli have also been meeting frequently to discuss the presidential election, and Oli has dangled a clever carrot: proposing Madhav Nepal of the CPN-US as a candidate. Nepal issued a coy response about the proposal, but has made it known he will be happy to step in. This puts Dahal in a dilemma, since he has already indicated to the NC that he is willing to make a deal.

If no party gets a simple majority in the votes on 9 March, a re-election will be held on 10 March. The election for vice president will be held on 17 March. The Election Commission is readying for the election in the Parliament premises in New Baneswor. 

There are 884 voters in the electoral college who will cast their ballots, of which 334 are from the federal House of Representatives and 550 from provincial assemblies. The votes will be weighted with federal parliament members getting 79 points to make 26,400 points and provincial assemblies getting 48 points each to make 26,386 votes.  

Read also: An unceremonious President, Editorial

Shristi Karki

writer

Shristi Karki is a correspondent with Nepali Times. She joined Nepali Times as an intern in 2020, becoming a part of the newsroom full-time after graduating from Kathmandu University School of Arts. Karki has reported on politics, current affairs, art and culture.

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