Nepal's new prime minister took the oath of office yesterday, taking on the challenge of keeping his political alliance together and bringing Maoist rebels into talks as he steers the troubled Himalayan country toward democracy.
King Gyanendra swore in Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala at the royal palace in central Kathmandu, the first time the two had come face-to-face since weeks of bloody protests -- lead in part by Koirala -- forced the monarch to give up complete control and reinstate parliament.
The king patted the frail-looking Koirala on his arm before issuing the oath of office in a palace hall where two stuffed tigers reared up on hind legs in the background. The guests included top military officials and the Supreme Court's chief justice. But the royal Privy Council -- the king's top advisers -- did not attend.
A lung ailment had repeatedly delayed the 84-year-old Koirala's inauguration, and he was accompanied to the royal palace by his doctor. Traditionally, a prime minister heads to his office after being sworn in, but Koirala went home instead, apparently to rest before addressing parliament later in the day.
Koirala, a onetime labor organizer who is among the country's most senior politicians, was chosen prime minister because he was the most acceptable candidate among the leading seven-party alliance, political leaders have said on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of those discussions.
Koirala was also expected yesterday to name ministers in his government -- including representatives from all the seven main political parties that formed an alliance to protest the king's seizure of power last year.
Parliament was to discuss a number of proposals made on Koirala's behalf on Friday, when Parliament convened for the first time in four years, including a ceasefire with Maoist rebels and establishment of a special assembly to rewrite the constitution.
Koirala faces the enormous challenge of keeping the alliance together, along with trying to bring their Maoist rebel allies into talks before announcing elections to the special assembly.
The Maoist rebels declared a ceasefire last week, but made it clear their truce was only for three months.
Koirala's "biggest task is to bring the Maoists on the right track," said Pradeep Gyawali of Communist Party of Nepal.
Koirala's party members agree.
"The first task the Cabinet needs to do is declare a ceasefire and begin peace talks," said Baldev Majgaiya of Koirala's Nepali Congress party.
"The main challenge for him is to manage the arms and the militia the Maoists have. They have the guns and the training, and the prime minister has to make sure they don't have the guns during the elections," Majgaiya said.
Party lawmakers also are demanding all the orders and laws of the previous government be invalidated and that the king be stripped of control over the 90,000-strong army, fearing he could use its loyalty to grab power again.
They are demanding the laws be amended immediately so the prime minister becomes the supreme commander of the army.
The Constitution also gives the king broad powers to dismiss governments.
On Saturday, the rebels freed eight of 11 unarmed soldiers they abducted last week despite a cease-fire declaration.
The freed soldiers were handed over to representatives of the rights group INSEC-Nepal in the village of Jitpur, about 500km east of Kathmandu, the group said in a statement.