Nepal's political process derailed, again

After years of delay, critics blame Nepal's dominant Maoist party for the impasse, in an attempt at ramming through a more radical constitution.

Binod Joshi/AP
Supporters of pro-monarchy Rastriya Prajatantra Party march in a rally demanding that Nepal be declared a Hindu nation in Katmandu, Nepal, Monday, May 28. Nepal sank into political turmoil Monday after lawmakers failed to agree on a new constitution, leaving the country with no legal government.

Nepal’s lawmakers failed to agree on a new constitution, reducing the government to caretaker status and with it the possibility of an end to a lengthy and tumultuous political transition this week.

The popularly elected constituent assembly was dissolved Sunday, after it failed to meet a deadline for passing the constitution. This was the latest of several extensions given to the assembly throughout the past four years, in an attempt to help rebuild the nation scarred by a decade-long Maoist insurgency that left more than 17,000 people dead.

Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai called for fresh assembly elections Nov. 22 to complete the constitution and announced he would be head of an interim government until then. But critics question the legality of his announcement, the legitimacy of his government after Sunday, and the utility of electing another assembly that could possibly meet the same fate given a poor track record of Nepal’s political forces.

Analysts say that Maoists have used the peace process as a path to capture state power after having failed to defeat the state army during the insurgency, but it is backfiring.

“The [new election] is clearly meant for state capture,” says senior journalist Yubaraj Ghimire, who is a former editor-in-chief of The Kathmandu Post. “But the Maoists haven’t taken into account the erosion of their credibility and loss of face in the past years. Contrary to being in an advantageous position, I think the Maoists are now isolated and cornered,” says Mr. Ghimire.

Nepal’s Maoists fought state forces from 1996 to 2006 demanding a new constitution and an end to monarchy. The now-dissolved assembly was elected to address these demands. The assembly successfully abolished monarchy at its first sitting on May 28, 2008. This year, the parties were also able to disband Maoist former fighting forces. But a key sticking point to a new constitution has been whether to give regional power based on ethnicity.

Rival political parties, including major ones such as the Nepali Congress and the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist Leninist), have termed Mr. Bhattarai’s call for elections unconstitutional and have demanded he step down to allow formation of an all-party government to decide a future course for the country.

Following the assembly’s dissolution and announcement of election, three coalition parties in Bhattarai’s government have quit.

And now, with their party vice-chairman at the helm of a government that does not have to face parliament’s scrutiny, the Maoists are counting on their ability to influence the new election to win a two-thirds majority and thrust a radical constitution on the country to achieve their long-term goal of state capture, say analysts.

But Maoist chairman Prachanda seemed unperturbed by unfolding events when he told a press conference in Kathmandu Monday that he was confident his party would win a two-thirds majority in the coming election. “And I am happy that I did not make compromises during discussions over a new constitution on my party’s agenda,” he added, referring to its support for a pro- ethnicity-based federalism.

Narayan Wagle, former editor-in-chief of Nagarik daily, blames the failure of the assembly on Maoists.

“They distracted political forces for more than three of the assembly’s four-year tenure by letting the issue of settling the future of former combatants dominate discussions. And when the assembly finally got down to work on a new constitution after the army took charge of the combatants in April this year, the Maoists again hijacked the assembly by throwing the ethnicity card,” he said.

In the last few weeks of the assembly’s life, political parties were sharply polarized over whether or not to divide Nepal into federal provinces based on ethnicity. The Maoists, who were backed during the insurgency by many marginalized ethnic groups who provided them with a steady source of committed fighters, refused to budge from their stand that the basis must be ethnicity.

But rival parties, who fear ethnic conflict in the event a handful of ethnic groups are given special privileges in a country that has more than 100 ethnic groups, could not agree. This unresolved issue led to the assembly’s dissolution.

Legal experts say it will be difficult to bring the country’s political process back on track.

“The call for fresh elections is procedurally flawed as the prime minister bypassed the parliament in taking the decision,” says Bhimarjun Acharya, a constitutional expert.

“The only way out of this mess is to form an all-party government to hold parliamentary election. There cannot be another election for a constituent assembly as announced by the prime minister because the interim constitution does not allow the holding of assembly elections twice. A newly elected parliament can be given the authority to finalize the remaining issues related to new constitution,” he said.

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