After Nepal's former Maoist guerrillas failed to woo the other major parties and name a new government last week, the interim parliament on Monday said it would hold an election on Friday to choose a new prime minister.
Maoist supremo Prachanda, who had staked claim to the premiership, will face an acid test on Friday with the main challenge expected to come from caretaker Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala and his Nepali Congress party.
The newly elected constituent assembly, which is also doing duty as Nepal's interim parliament, set on Friday as the date for the prime ministerial election. Any of the 25 parliamentary parties can field a candidate. The deadline for filing nominations is Thursday.
This is the first time that a constituent assembly will elect Nepal's prime minister. It could also be the first time that the Maoists, who fought a 10-year guerrilla war to overthrow Nepal's constitutional monarchy, would come to power.
The former insurgents, who had left mainstream politics in 1996 after condemning the parliament as a meat shop, participated in the elections this year and won an unprecedented victory in the April election.
However, with 226 members in the 595-member constituent assembly, the former rebels still lack majority. Though they were ready to proceed with a minority government, the plan was struck down by Nepal's influential neighour India, which insisted on a consensus government.
Last week, President Ram Baran Yadav gave the Maoists two opportunities to form a consensus government. However, the party failed to meet both deadlines due to fierce jockeying for power with Koirala.
On Sunday, Yadav asked the assembly to hold an election so that the new prime minister could be chosen on the basis of a constitutional provision that requires simple majority in the house.
Now it remains to be seen if Prachanda, who won the April election from two constituencies, can perform a hat-trick. Though 16 minor parties have pledged to support him, he still needs to rope in one of the three other larger parties: the Nepali Congress or the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist (UML) or ethnic party Madhesi Janadhikar Forum.
Despite their April victory, the Maoists were humbled in the presidential election last month when a coalition of the other three parties voted for Nepali Congress nominee Yadav.
There are reports that the 83-year-old Koirala is keen on yet another term as prime minister despite his failing health. If he enters the ring, the contest will be a close one, especially with the Nepali Congress claiming that he has the backing of New Delhi.
However, if Prachanda is defeated, it would be a severe loss of face for the Maoists and could negatively impact the peace process by triggering another Maoist protest movement.
Faced with the fear, the big parties were trying, even on Monday, to reach an understanding.
The Nepali Congress-Maoist feud is apparently over the defence ministry. Though the portfolio has traditionally been held by the prime minister, the Nepali Congress wants the post on the ground that with Prachanda still remaining the supreme commander of the Maoist guerrilla army, there should be a system of checks and balance.
The Maoists, however, have been saying they would not form the government without the defence ministry. They are also blaming India for the impasse, saying New Delhi doesn't want to see the Maoists come to power.