UML Chairman Jhala Nath Khanal is now the Prime Minister-elect, thanks to support from the Maoists in Thursday's election. He faces the multiple challenges of taking the peace process forward while balancing the interests of the other parties, especially leaders within UML and the Maoists.
The election of CPN-UML Chairman Jhala Nath Khanal is a positive development for at least two reasons: a) the caretaker government of seven months is finally being replaced; b) another message to India that it has limits to playing king-maker in Nepal.
Apart from these two positive developments, there are hurdles galore.
Managing the Maoists, his own party, the opposition, and leading a coalition government during a post-conflict transition period that has to facilitate writing of the constitution and oversee the integration/rehabilitation of ex-Maoist combatants are the big challenges ahead for the UML chief.
Indeed, Khanal has an unenviable task.
Ironically, this is largely a result of Khanal's doings over the last year or so. That the country could not get a new prime minister for seven months after the incumbent resigned was a result of the steadfast refusal by the Khanal faction of the UML to vote for a new prime minister in the last session of parliament.
In close collaboration with UCPN (Maoist) Chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal, Khanal masterminded the ouster of his party colleague Madhav Kumar Nepal as prime minister. Nepal won't be too happy about the role Khanal has
Nepali Congress is sore with UML, and particularly with Khanal, for not supporting its candidate as prime minister. The feeling of betrayal is very strong and it might shape the NC's attitude to the new government.
Bijaya Gachchhadar's Madhesi People's Rights Forum (Democratic) and the Mahantha Thakur-led Tarai Madhes Democratic Party have already decided to sit in the opposition. Whether Upendra Yadav's Forum, the split faction of
TMDP and Rajendra Mahato's Sadbhavana Party join the government depends on whether they can defy external pressures. That again will depend on what Khanal can offer them.
Also, a section of the Maoists stiffly opposed their party's decision to back Khanal as the prime minister. Their influence cannot be underestimated and this will affect the Maoist-UML coalition in the days ahead.
Khanal's performance as prime minister will also be determined by how much leverage the Dahal-led Maoist party is willing to give him, as will be the cooperation (or lack thereof) from the opposition led by the Nepali Congress.
To make matters worse for Khanal, there are just four months left for the extended tenure of the Constituent Assembly-cum Legislature/Parliament to expire. By 28 May, a new constitution needs to be written. It won't be
easy, given the animosity that currently pervades Nepali politics. Another extension of the CA will be hard to justify without accomplishing the integration/rehabilitation of Maoist combatants and some tangible success in removing differences over the contentious issues of the constitution, like its permanent features, the form of government, the number and shape of federal states, and the judiciary.
This is the backdrop against which Khanal has to operate and his success (or failure) will depend on how he can reach out to various forces within and outside the country.