Veteran Nepali Congress leader Ram Chandra Paudel has been elected the Himalayan nation’s third president since a centuries-old monarchy was abolished in 2008.
In the two-man race for the largely ceremonial position, the 78-year-old Paudel secured 33,802 votes. His rival, Subash Chandra Nembang, received 15,518 votes, Nepali media reported on Thursday.
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Paudel, a former speaker, has been a six-time lawmaker and has held a ministerial position five times, including interior ministry. He began his political career as a student leader during the decades-long partyless Panchayat system that lasted to 1990. He was imprisoned while fighting against the former king’s rule.
The tenure of the outgoing president, Bidya Devi Bhandari, ends on March 12.
The president is elected by an electoral college comprising of two houses of federal parliament and seven provincial legislators. Nepal is a parliamentary democracy with a ceremonial president as head of the state, but during times of political crisis, the president can play a key function in government formation.
At least 831 votes were cast in the presidential election out of the 881 eligible votes. The vote weightage of a member of the federal parliament is 79 while it is 48 for a provincial assembly member.
The elections came at a time of political uncertainty following the election held in November last year, which produced a hung parliament and a fragile coalition government.
Prime Minister Dahal decided to support Paudel in the presidential bid despite forming his government with support from the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist or CPN-UML), the second-largest party in parliament.
The CPN-UML has accused Dahal of failing to honour a power-sharing agreement and broke off ties with the governing coalition.
This move paved the way for a new pact between the Nepali Congress and Dahal-led the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre), which are the largest and third-largest parties, respectively.
The newly elected president will immediately face a political crisis, as the Supreme Court will hear a petition demanding Dahal’s arrest and an investigation into his leadership during a decade-long civil war that killed thousands. The war ended in 2006 when the then-banned Maoists led by Dahal signed a peace accord with the government.
Analysts have said the biggest challenge for the new president is to maintain an impartial constitutional role.
“The president is not supposed to independently act, nor be a separate power centre,” constitutional expert Bipin Adhikari told Reuters. “In most cases the president is supposed to act on the recommendation and with the consent of the prime minister.”
Nepal is still struggling to recover from the economic troubles brought on by COVID-19, which led to a drop in the number of foreign tourists coming to climb the country’s mountain peaks and hike its trails. Reviving tourism is necessary to bolster Nepal’s economy.
Dahal also must balance relations between Nepal’s two giant neighbours, India and China. Both New Delhi and Beijing compete for influence in the tiny Himalayan nation.
Former Prime Minister and the leader of the CPN-UML Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli is believed to be pro-China while the Congress Party has old ties with India going back decades. The party was founded in the Indian city of Kolkata, then known as Calcutta, in 1946.