Steve Herman - VOA News, New Delhi

Nepal’s former five-term prime minister has died. Girija Prasad Koirala, who was in his mid-80’s still headed the country’s Congress Party, playing a critical role in Nepal’s fragile government until just before his death. There are concerns his passing could re-plunge the Himalayan nation into a chaotic period.

Nepal’s senior statesman died early Saturday [20 Mar 2010] afternoon at his daughter’s home in Kathmandu. Outside thousands of supporters had gathered as word spread that the veteran leader had slipped into a coma.

Although suffering from respiratory and heart ailments for years he remained at the center of Nepal’s fractious political scene after shepherding his country from an era of monarchy to democratic elections, which in 2008 were won by the former rebel Maoists.

The president of Nepal’s Conflict Study Center, Bishnu Pathak, tells VOA News only Mr. Koirala had the personal authority and experience to credibly negotiate with all parties.

"I have not myself seen that anyone can replace him as a successor because he had very good links with the Maoists, the UML (United Marxist-Leninist Party), these other regional and cultural forces. I have not seen, at this moment, anyone can have a similar role," he said.

That, he adds, could cause Nepal’s tenuous calm to "deteriorate."

Himalmedia group publisher Kanak Mani Dixit agrees.

"His departure in an unstable time would make the polity more unstable," he said.

Analyst Pathak says Mr. Koirala, just days before his death, apparently persuaded Maoist leader, Pushpa Kamal Dahal – known as Prachanda – to return to Nepal’s interim government.

"He was so seriously sick he even advised Prachanda to lead Nepal after something happened to his body," said Pathak.

Nepal appears almost certain to miss a May 28th deadline to finish writing a new constitution, in which publisher Dixit notes the Maoists are inserting clauses regarded as undemocratic.

"It was once again hoped that somebody with the stature of Koirala would have been able to convince the Maoists to pull back on these undemocratic elements," he said.

Also left unaccomplished at the time of Mr. Koirala’s death is the sensitive integration of nearly 20,000 former rebel fighters into Nepal’s military and society.

The U.S. Embassy in Kathmandu released a statement hailing Mr. Koirala as a statesman who long struggled for democracy and peace. It said the best way to honor his legacy would be to accelerate the peace process and finalize the new constitution as quickly as possible.  

Mr. Koirala burnished his democratic credentials by spending seven years in prison during the 1960s for opposing the Hindu monarchy. He also gained a reputation as an autocrat and, as is the case with many South Asian politicians, faced corruption allegations.

Girija Prasad Koirala called the peace and reconciliation process his final struggle and joked if it failed he would return as a ghost to haunt Nepal.



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