KATHMANDU: Nepal's opposition Maoist party has been dragged into a snowballing scandal with a leaked audio tape indicating the former guerrillas sought NRS 500 million from Chinese "friends" to buy MPs' votes ahead of Sunday's election to choose a new prime minister.
The allegations have been denied by both the Maoists, who called the tape a fake, and the Chinese embassy in Kathmandu.
The furore was triggered by an audio tape aired by the Indian television channel in Nepali, Nepal 1, on Friday night.
The nearly 20-minute tape has two conversations, allegedly between Krishna Bahadur Mahara, former Maoist information and communications minister, who's currently the MP in charge of the party's foreign affairs, and an unidentified male caller who, from the conversation, seems to be a Chinese middleman.
The caller begins the conversation asking, "Mr Mahara, how is the (election) 'trend' in Nepal?"
The man addressed as Mahara says though his party has managed to woo an additional 10-15 votes for Sunday's prime ministerial election, it still needs around 50 more votes to pull off a win.
"You need additional 50?" the caller asks. "And Mr Mahara, what kind of help could help you to get the extra seats?"
The man addressed as Mahara then says it is a difficult task because a section of MPs, referred to as the "south centre", is guided by others and needs to be neutralised.
Apparently, it is a reference to the Terai MPs, who sat neutral in the earlier five rounds of the election, causing the poll to end in a fiasco with neither Maoist chairman and former prime minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal Prachanda nor his challenger, Nepali Congress leader Ram Chandra Poudel, winning.
The Maoists have been alleging that the Terai parties are controlled by the Indian government. During the fourth round of elections, a renegade MP from the Terai kicked up a row by alleging an Indian official had threatened him for joining the Maoists.
The caller on tape then says he has a "friend" who wants to "help". However, he can't come to Nepal and so a meeting should be set up somewhere else between him, Mahara and "the chairman".
The caller suggests Hong Kong, saying his "friend" will not need a visa there, indicating he is a Chinese and probably a diplomat or a government official. He says, "For other countries, he will need the special visa and that will (draw) people's attention... But for Hong Kong, he can go there and nobody will know."
He doesn't mention the "friend's" name, saying it is for his "own protection".
The man called Mahara is uneasy about Hong Kong, saying there are too many Nepalis living there and a visit would not remain secret.
"When he goes to Hong Kong, everybody propagates (sic)," he answers. "Because he was prime minister and he is the candidate of the prime minister (election) also." This appeared to refer to Prachanda.
Instead, he suggests Chengdu in China, calling it "the best place... nobody (will) know".
But the caller rejects it, saying: "This is very sensitive and we don't want to have anything to do between (you) and the government of China".
The man called Mahara then suggests Singapore as another rendezvous destination.
He then goes on to say that another Chinese has been discussing the upcoming election with the Maoist chief. Then he dispenses with the niceties and mentions an actual sum of money.
"For 50 members, if we cost (sic) them, then the minimum (is) NRS 10 million per person," he says.
The second conversation indicates it was held probably Wednesday morning.
Since the Maoist leadership did not make any visits abroad after that, doubts remain as to whether the deal fell through, or was struck in Nepal itself or whether it was a sting operation without any real Chinese involvement to expose the wheeling and dealing going on in the Maoist party.
The tape follows accusations by a fringe communist party leader, Chandra Prakash Mainali, Tuesday that he was offered NRS 50 million if he voted for them in Sunday's election.
Both Mainali's allegation and the tape have produced denials from the Maoists, who called the first baseless and the latter a fake.
The Chinese embassy in Kathmandu also called the tape baseless.
Despite the denials, the allegations cast fresh doubts about the Maoists, being the second such expose in two years.
In May 2009, a leaked video tape showed Prachanda boasting in a Maoist guerrilla camp that he had deliberately lied about the strength of his combatants during a UN verification, inflating their number five-fold so that they could be inducted into the Nepal national army and control it.
Since the leaked tape, the Maoists' attempt to find berths in the army for their over 19,600 fighters has fallen flat and caused the peace process to grind to a halt.