A showdown between constitutional institutions and slim chances of finding a consensus prime minister add to the country’s political complexities

President Ram Baran Yadav’s seven-day deadline to political forces to recommend a consensus prime minister ends on Thursday evening, with parties nowhere close to a political agreement. Instead, political divisions appear to have deepened, and the President is expected to extend the deadline.

Dr. Yadav’s appeal drew a sharp reaction from Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai. The ruling alliance formally asked Dr. Yadav to correct his move, and the cabinet criticised the President’s appeal for being unconstitutional.

Bhattarai’s arguments rest on the principle that his government, by virtue of being elected on the floor of the house, is legitimate. The Prime Minister believes that the President has to act on the recommendations of the Council of Ministers; and that in the absence of Parliament, Dr. Yadav has no basis to appoint a new prime minister. Dr. Bhattarai has emphasised that accepting the presidential directive would pave the way for future arbitrary actions and must be resisted.

But the Prime Minister’s reaction was in contrast with the relatively softer approach adopted by Maoist chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal “Prachanda.” Dr. Yadav had consulted Mr. Prachanda before issuing his appeal. And while the Maoist leader was taken aback by the use of certain constitutional articles by the President, he has been keen to defuse the tensions between Dr. Yadav and Dr. Bhattarai. Maoist insiders claim that Mr. Prachanda is in a bit of a bind, especially in light of the approaching party convention. He does not want to antagonise Dr. Bhattarai, nor does he want him to remain strong. The Maoist chairman has publicly asked the Opposition to join the current government, but given their reluctance, is open to the idea of replacing Bhattarai. This has increased tensions between the two leaders.

PM candidates

The race for the new prime minister has begun, with the principal Opposition leader and Nepali Congress (NC) president Sushil Koirala throwing his hat in the ring. He has been working to patch up differences with party rival Sher Bahadur Deuba who has asked for space for himself and his loyalists within the party structure in return for stepping out of the prime ministerial race. Observers say Mr. Deuba’s “sacrifice” is more to do with the fact that he knows that the prospects for Mr. Koirala are very slim.

Mr. Koirala has met Madhesi leaders to lobby for support, arguing that only the NC can “save democracy,” and is both “pro-Madhes,” and “pro India.” Madhesi leaders who have met him told The Hindu that there is almost no chance of supporting the NC. “NC blocked federalism. They wanted to divide Madhes into five provinces. How can we support them,” said a Madhesi minister.

For their part, the Maoists too have ruled out any chance of supporting the NC. Instead, Mr. Prachanda has said that the Prime Minister should be from among four leaders of the ruling Federal Democratic Republican Alliance (FDRA) — Dr. Bhattarai, deputy Prime Minister and Maoist leader Narayan Kaji Shrestha “Prakash,” Home Minister and Madhesi leader Bijay Gachhedar, or chairman of the Tarai Madhes Loktantrik Party Mahant Thakur. In private conversations, Mr. Prachanda has made it clear that he is not interested in becoming prime minister, but this has not stopped speculation that he could well be a compromise candidate. The Opposition Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist Leninist), in a decision on Tuesday, however said they will not accept a Maoist or Madhesi leader.

A neutral PM

In this maze of over half a dozen prime ministerial candidates, each party cancelling the other out, a consensus looks elusive, reviving the idea of a “neutral PM-led political cabinet.” Such a person could be a former chief justice or a civil society leader who was active in the 2006 People’s Movement.

But principled objections have emerged from within the political class as well as sections of civil society to such an arrangement, with questions about whether such a person would be able to reconcile political differences and hold elections.

As Nepali politicians struggle to reach a political consensus, another deadline looms, with the Election Commission making it clear that they need a formal green signal by mid-December to hold elections in April-May 2013.

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