Post-presidential politicsWhat Ram Chandra Paudel's presidency will look like for Nepali politics
On Thursday, Ram Chandra Paudel of the Nepali Congress (NC) was elected the third president of Nepal, defeating Subhas Nembang of the UML.
Paudel received 33,802 votes out of out of 49,591 cast votes by weightage, while Nembang received 15,518 votes.
831 out of 881 eligible votes were cast in the election. This included 313 out of 332 members of the upper and lower Houses of Parliament as well as 518 out of 550 members of the Provincial Assemblies.
The election of Paudel of the as president was a foregone conclusion, but what is less certain now is what the bruising battle for the ceremonial post will now do to Nepal’s fragile politics.
Paudel’s candidacy was a quid pro quo between Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal of the Maoist Centre and the NC’s Sher Bahadur Deuba in which Dahal had to agree to step down as head of government in favour of Deuba and Madhav Kumar Nepal of the CPN (US). And all this was to break the Maoist-UML alliance and prevent K P Oli from being all-powerful.
The fight for head of state was just shadow-boxing, the real struggle was over who gets to become the head of government. The UML had fielded lawyer Subhas Nembang, knowing fairly well he did not have the electoral college votes.
Despite it being a post bound by constitutional strictures, all parties in the fray have ulterior motives in having a pliable president because of the inherent discretionary powers. And because the struggle to have their own president became so politically fraught that it actually broke the 5-party coalition, there is now a danger that Paudel will be under pressure to let his benefactors extract a pound of flesh.
For the same reason, post-president politics in Nepal will be a minefield. The UML’s Oli is still smarting from being stabbed in the back by Dahal and Deuba and will be waiting to exact revenge. Prime Minister Dahal will find it even more difficult to distribute ministerial rewards to his new 9-party coalition for backing him. The RSP, ever eager to be in any government, voted for Paudel, while the royalist RPP abstained.
Dahal’s first immediate challenge will be to face a floor test in the House, since he has lost his majority after the UML pulled out.
With the presidential elections over, fence-sitters of the 9-party coalition will now wait to see what ministerial portfolios will be awarded to their parties in exchange for loyalty.
The intriguing coincidence that the Supreme Court hearing on a writ petition against Prime Minister Dahal for war-era crimes was announced on the same day as the presidential election has aroused suspicion that even the current coalition could be short-lived, with the UML and the NC joining hands to expel Dahal. Given the fickleness of past alliances, anything is possible.
A single bench of Justice Bishowambhar Shrestha will hear the case filed by advocates Gyanendra Aran and Kalyan Budhathoki seeking investigation into Prime Minister Dahal for his self-confession taking responsibility for 5,000 killed during the conflict. The writ petitioners are conflict victims.
On the face of it, it should not matter who is president: Paudel or Nembang. Both have been Speakers and served multiple terms as ministers. They are also largely untainted, and both command respect across party lines.
Paudel being president also means there is now a three-way power balance with a UML Speaker and Maoist Prime Minister. theoretically, this could mean more stable politics. Or not.
However, Paudel is a career politician, and Nembang is a lawyer and his rise within the party has been relatively rapid.
Ram Chandra Paudel, 78, has been representing the NC from Tanahu since the early 1990s. He joined the democratic movement at the age 16. He rose up the ranks in student union politics, and served 13 years in jail. Despite his solid commitment to democracy, he is a part of the old guard that Deuba saw as a threat.
For Paudel, this will be the culmination of six decades in politics, and he lobbied vigorously with Dahal, Deuba, and even Oli.
As president, Paudel may not be the yes-man Deuba and Dahal want, unlike outgoing President Bidya Devi Bhandari.
Nembang has been politically active in the UML since his student days in 1971 in Ilam. As a lawyer, he was general secretary of the Nepal Bar Association in 1987, and was elected to the House of Representatives in 1999.
Nembang served as the Speaker of the House in 2006, and served as the chair of the Constituent Assembly in both 2008 and 2014. He was re-elected Speaker in 2015, and became the UML vice-chair in 2018.
Many feel that Nembang would have been a better fit as president because of his persona, legal background as well as the fact that it was the turn of a person from an indigenous background to be president.
Nembang is seen as a non-confrontational politician who often mediated to resolve deadlocks in party disputes – even though he was criticised for not speaking out against Oli for his attempt to dissolve Parliament in 2021.