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Nepal: Will The New Prime Minister Be Any Different?

Nepal has been on a rollercoaster ride since the 2008 Constituent Assembly elections. Public verdict on political leadership was fractured – the Maoists emerged as the largest party, but far from a secure majority. Establishment parties such as Nepali Congress, Nepal Communist Party (United Marxist and Leninist) (UML) were severely restricted and regional parties managed to secure only some seats; this weakened traditional power bases and created forced alliances.

As a result the country has had three Prime Ministers in last four years and the promised new Constitution is nowhere near completion.

Lack of stable leadership and constant struggle amongst the parties have affected Nepal's young democracy and the country has a new leader, yet again. Senior Maoist leader Dr. Baburam Bhattarai was sworn in as Nepal's 34th Prime Minister last week. United We Blog for Democratic Nepal commented on Dr. Bhattarai's election and noted that unlike past leaders, he has support from across the political spectrum:

People across the political divide have supported BRB for the for prime minister mainly because of his impressive performance as finance minister in Prachanda cabinet and because of his liberal, intellectual image that has made him darling of media and middle class.

The news of his election aroused largely positive feelings at Twitter too. Anil Ghimire at Aakar Post has compiled reactions from Nepali twitter users.

Prime Minister Dr. Baburam Bhattarai. Image by Krish Dulal. (CC BY -SA 3.0)

Prime Minister Dr. Baburam Bhattarai. Image by Krish Dulal. (CC BY -SA 3.0)

During his tenure as Finance Minister, Dr. Bhattarai solidified his position among the cash-strapped Nepali public when he decided to forgo expensive foreign cars for cost-effective “made in Nepal” vehicles.

Journalist Benjamin Graham noted in his blog:

Never has a simple SUV attracted as much attention as did the four-door Mustang Max that drove through the streets of Kathmandu, Nepal on Monday. Riding in the vehicle was Nepal’s newly elected Prime Minister, Dr. Baburam Bhattarai, who chose to drive the Nepali-made car to his swearing-in ceremony and his new office at Singha Durbar, Nepal’s parliamentary building. Bhattarai’s choice of transportation breaks a long standing tradition among Nepali Prime Ministers, who usually opt for expensive, foreign-made luxury autos.

The discreet SUV, which lacks air-conditioning and power windows, much less bullet-proof glass, brought crowds of interested citizens to the streets and caused a firestorm of chatter on social networking sites.

But not everyone is impressed. Former Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations and noted Nepali intellectual Kul Chandra Gautam says that Bhattarai's overly ideological stance does not inspire confidence in his government:

But Bhattarai also carries a baggage as a dour and dogmatic ideologue. While recently he has tried to brand himself as a progressive moderate who stands for peace, democracy and constitution, he has not hesitated to make strategic alliances with leaders of the most hard-line faction of the UCPN-Maoist. Whether he can liberate himself from the clutches of the hardliners, and rise above his own Leninist opportunism, will determine his success and, to some extent, the future direction of the country.

Crimes committed during the Maoist insurgency may come back to haunt the new Prime Minister. NepalNews.com reports that a group of noted human rights activists and intellectuals has released a statement denouncing the Maoist proposal to grant mass amnesty for crimes committed during the insurgency:

We condemn the Maoist party's proposal to withdraw and cancel all court cases regarding crimes committed during the conflict, and to provide general amnesty to those who have been found guilty by the courts. This proposal of the Maoist party goes against all national responsibilities under the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, the Interim Constitution and international humanitarian law,” a statement signed by 13 members of the group said.

No doubt the new Prime Minister faces steep challenges. But he has shown skills by mixing in populist moves to strengthen his position. If he can keep his coalition partners and party hardliners happy, and create a workable environment within the government, he might just break the cycle of disappointments.

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