Nepal sank into political turmoil yesterday after lawmakers failed to agree on a new constitution, leaving the country with no legal government. The Nepalese prime minister called new elections, but critics said he lacked the power to do so.
Security forces went on high alert, although Kathmandu was largely quiet due to a national holiday. Riot police patrolled the streets after several political parties called for rallies to demand the resignation of Nepalese Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai and protest his unilateral decision to call elections for November.
“The country has plunged into a serious crisis,” said Ram Sharan Mahat, a senior leader of the country’s second-largest party, the Nepali Congress, who added that six months would not be enough time to prepare for new polling.
“This government has no legitimate grounds to continue,” he said.
The squabbling political parties in Nepal’s Constituent Assembly had failed to agree on a new blueprint for the Himalayan nation by their own deadline of midnight on Sunday, despite numerous repeated extensions over the past four years.
A key sticking point was whether the country’s states should be drawn to give regional power bases to ethnic minorities.
Writing the new constitution was supposed to cap an interim period aimed at solidifying details of Nepal’s democracy after the country turned the page on centuries of royal rule and resolved a decade-long Maoist insurgency by bringing the former combatants into the political mainstream.
Bhattarai, from the party of former Maoists, said the previous constitutional assembly, elected four years ago, had failed and must be dissolved, and that he would head a caretaker government until the Nov. 22 elections.
However, his plan immediately drew criticism from legal experts, who said any plans for new polling should be made in consultation with the country’s other political parties.
“It was politically, legally and morally incorrect of the prime minister to announce a fresh election,” constitutional and legal expert Bhimarjun Acharya said.
Police spokesman Binod Singh said thousands of police officers have been deployed in Kathmandu and major cities across the country to stop any violence in coming days.
Much of the debate was over whether to draw state boundaries in a way to boost the political power of the country’s ethnic minorities.
Nepal’s minority ethnic groups and low-caste communities were overshadowed for centuries by the country’s elite. Those divisions have given rise to caste and ethnic-based politicians, who insist their long-marginalized communities deserve to live in states that maximize their influence.
Thousands of protesters against states being drawn along such lines tried to push through a riot police blockade. Police pushed back and a scuffle ensued, with protesters throwing stones and police responding with tear gas and batons.
On the other side of the assembly hall, thousands of people demonstrated in support of states based on ethnicity.
The Nepalese Constituent Assembly was elected to a two-year term in 2008 to draft a new constitution, but has been unable to finish the task. Its tenure has been extended four times, but the Nepalese Supreme Court rejected any further extensions.