The turbulent political context of the election of Nepal’s new president must not blind observers to the significance of the victory of Bidhya Devi Bhandari. A woman as the head of state, and only its second president, is a milestone for the Himalayan nation. Although Bhandari will be only a ceremonial head, the vice chairperson of the ruling Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML) is more seasoned as a politician and electorally more tried and tested than many of her colleagues in parliament, having won popular elections and having been the country’s defence minister from 2009 to 2011.
The widow of late communist leader Madan Bhandari, Bidhya Devi has long been associated with the social and political struggle to alleviate the condition of women in her country. One of her promises is that she will champion women’s and minority rights as president. Bhandari had a determining role, along with others, in ensuring the reservation of a third of parliamentary seats for women in the new constitution, which also lays down that either the president or the vice president must be a woman. As president, Bhandari’s political activities will be curtailed, but her stature in Nepal’s polity and within her party should ensure that her advice is taken seriously.
Bhandari’s clean triumph over Nepali Congress veteran K.B. Gurung was not unexpected, given the Maoists’ support for her candidacy. Her election also frames the rapprochement between the UML and the Maoist party that puts the Nepali Congress — the UML’s coalition partner and largest party — in a tighter spot. While Bhandari is an old ally of PM K.P. Oli, this leftist assertion comes when Nepali society has been polarised by the promulgation of the new constitution. Bhandari, therefore, will run the danger of walking too close to the edge in every word and action. She must preside over the healing of the nation, not further division.