The leader of the decade-long Maoist rebellion in Nepal was finally elected prime minister on Friday, after four months of political wrangling. His victory sets the stage for the former rebels' toughest challenge: how to raise the living standard of 27 million people in one of the poorest countries in the world, at a time of soaring food and fuel prices.
Pushpa Kamal Dahal, who goes by the nom de guerre Prachanda, “the fierce one” in Nepali, won more than two-thirds of 577 votes cast in the Constituent Assembly on Friday evening.
His election had been expected since last April, when the Maoists won a majority in a special assembly elected both to draft a new constitution and to form a government. For four months, however, Nepali Congress, the nation's oldest party, blocked their bid to lead a government of national consensus because of a long list of grievances against the Maoists.
The election of the prime minister opens the way to establish a democratically elected government in Nepal. That will be a milestone in resolving the decade-long civil war, a conflict that claimed the lives of an estimated 13,000 people before it ended with a peace accord in 2006.
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The Maoists have already achieved their main goal, the end of 239 years of Hindu monarchy. At its first session, in May, a constituent assembly declared Nepal a federal republic. The former king, Gyanendra, the world's last Hindu monarch, was forced to vacate the main palace and live as a commoner.
On Friday, Prachanda, 54, won with the support of three of four biggest parties in the 601-member assembly. Nepali Congress still refused to support his Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), accusing its youth force of brutality. It also objected that the Maoists had not returned private property seized from political opponents during the war.
Prachanda defeated Sher Bahadur Deuba, a three-time former prime minister from Nepali Congress.
A senior Maoist leader, Baburam Bhattarai, said Friday that political leaders of the party would no longer hold positions in its armed wing, the People's Liberation Army. He also pledged that the party would return seized property to its owners.
Since shedding his fatigues and transforming himself into a politician, Prachanda has sought to cast his organization as a political party that merits the trust of the Nepalese people and foreign donors.
As they form a government, the Maoists face their biggest challenge ever. Fuel is in short supply in the cities and hunger looms in the countryside. They will also press to integrate their former fighters into the Nepal army, a demand that the army will likely resist vigorously.
The Maoists remain on the U.S. list of banned terrorist organizations, although American officials have established contact with their political leaders, including Prachanda.