February 3, 2023

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Nepal’s revolving door produces a new leader, but no hoped-for change

The former leader of a decades-long Maoist rebellion was elected prime minister by Nepal’s parliament on Monday, a move that has kept the old guard in power despite growing calls for change and has been welcomed in China as it struggles for influence in the Himalayan nation.

Former rebel leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal, 68, emerged as the country’s supreme leader for the third time in 14 years after weeks of negotiations that followed an inconclusive election in November, unexpectedly bringing the country’s two main communist parties closer together.

Nepal’s musical presidency election system will be succeeded by Mr Dahal Sher Bahadur Deuba, 76, who had hoped to secure a sixth term as prime minister. The main bloc supporting Mr Dahal was led by the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist), which was chaired by another former prime minister, KP Sharma Oli, who himself was seeking a fourth term.

Many Nepali voters reacted to Mr Dahal’s swearing-in on Monday with a pang of despair.

“No trouble. He has already been elected prime minister twice but has done nothing for us,” said Saroj Basnet, 45, a businessman from Lalitpur, near the capital Kathmandu. What little hope he found in the election, Mr Basnet said, came “from new faces entering government as ministers”.

Mr Dahal’s victory represented an establishment continuation in an election that drew an unusual number of young and first-time candidates clamoring for a new direction in one of Asia’s poorest nations.

It was also warmly welcomed in China, which has increasingly infiltrated Nepalese politics by funding infrastructure development and aid, while neighboring India struggles to keep the country firmly in its own sphere of influence.

Mr Dahal, the leader of another communist party, the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre), first became prime minister in 2008 after abandoning a decades-long insurgency that claimed the lives of 17,000 people.

The armed rebellion succeeded in overthrowing the centuries-old Hindu monarchy and establishing a democratic republic that Mr Dahal and his supporters said would pave the way to economic prosperity for Nepal.

But while the country has struggled for political stability and has gone through 13 governments in 14 years, Nepal has not developed at a reasonable pace for a mostly young population centered in Kathmandu but also spread across a remote mountainous landscape. No government has managed to serve a full term since 2008.

With high unemployment and low job creation, the country’s economy depends on remittances from citizens working abroad. Every year, around 600,000 young people from the country of 30 million migrate to the Persian Gulf and Malaysia in search of work.

Inspired by the success of some independent candidates in Kathmandu and other cities in recent local elections, about 860 independent candidates ran for 275 seats in parliament in November, according to Nepal’s Electoral Commission. More than 1,000 candidates ran for 330 seats in the provincial assembly elections.

The huge field of candidates signaled a strong desire to replace the political establishment with youngsters. More than half of Nepal’s eligible voters are between 18 and 40 years old. A lively social media campaign was organized on Twitter under the hashtag #NoNotAgain to anger the old guard.

A group of young professionals and political novices formed a party and appointed Rabi Lamichhane, a TV news anchor, as its leader. Her party secured 20 seats, but it was unclear if they could disrupt the mainstream political order.

With limited resources, the new party supported Mr. Dahal and was rewarded. Several members were selected for ministerial posts, with Mr Lamichhane himself being appointed Deputy Prime Minister and Home Secretary.

In an unforeseen turn, the post-election scramble brought the two communist leaders, Mr Dahal and Mr Oli, closer together. Mr Deuba had backed out of a deal to take turns running the government with Mr Dahal, who then approached Mr Oli to strike a deal of his own. Under the published terms of their power-sharing agreement, the two men will take turns serving as prime ministers.

Senior Chinese leaders had traveled to Kathmandu and urged unity for the country’s communist parties after Mr Deuba’s centre-right Social Democratic Party-led government signaled it would accept $500 million in US aid.

After Mr. Dahal’s victory, congratulations came from all three foreign powerhouses – India, China and the United States.

A spokeswoman for China’s Foreign Ministry said China attaches great importance to its ties with Nepal and will deepen cooperation with the Dahal government on infrastructure projects under Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative. An official from Mr Dahal’s party told Reuters that the new government will seek “relationships of equal proximity” with both China and India.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was quick to express his willingness to work with Mr Dahal. “The unique relationship between India and Nepal is based on a deep cultural connection and warm people-to-people relationships. I look forward to working with you to further strengthen this friendship.” he wrote on Twitter.

India-Nepal relations were strained during Mr Oli’s last term in office, which ended in 2021, after the government released a map claiming about 150 square miles inside India rightfully belonged to Nepal. Tensions eased after Mr Oli left the government and Mr Deuba came to power.

Emily Schmall contributed reporting from Goa, India.