Nepal's political deadlock reaches crisis point

  • Published
Nepalese police guard the restricted area around the constitutional assembly
Image caption,
Tension is mounting in Nepal more than four years after a ceasefire between Maoist rebels and the state

Nepal's politicians have admitted they will not be able to meet a 28 May deadline to draw up a new constitution. As negotiations for an extension continue, the BBC's Joanna Jolly in Kathmandu reports on how the country is reacting.

On Kathmandu's main shopping street, a group of 50 men and women stand silently.

Many have stuck pieces of paper to their chests bearing the words "no work, no pay".

After a few minutes, the demonstration ends in a round of applause and an impromptu meeting begins.

These young, middle-class Nepalis have gathered to protest against the lack of progress by the country's constituent assembly - the 601-member body tasked with writing Nepal's new democratic constitution.

Over the past few weeks, public protests like this have flared up across the capital, organised through the internet and social media sites.

For many, it is the first time they have demonstrated in public.

"We don't have a very long history of democracy in our country," says Prashant Singh, who is a founding member of the Facebook group called Nepal Unites.

"People lack trust that they can actually come out on the streets and have their say, without having a political party behind them," he says.

The mobilisation of Nepal's previously complacent urban elite highlights the growing frustration felt by Nepalis against the country's stalled peace process.

Power struggles

More than four years after a ceasefire between Maoist rebels and the state, politicians are set to miss another deadline to finish drafting a new national charter.

Image caption,
A wide cross-section of people have taken to the streets

Under the 2006 Comprehensive Peace Agreement that ended 10 years of conflict, politicians pledged to write a new constitution by May 28 2010.

However, this deadline was extended by one year after it became clear that many key constitutional issues had not been resolved.

Despite this extension, power struggles both within and between the three main political parties have meant that little progress has been made.

Politicians have still to agree on what system of government to adopt and how many provinces the country will have.

Although last minute talks continue, it is still unclear whether Nepal's squabbling political parties will be able to agree on the terms for another extension.

If the 28 May deadline passes without resolution, the country will face a constitutional vacuum.

"There may be presidential rule," says Gagan Thapa from the opposition Nepali Congress Party.

"Nothing is clear. Things may go out of our control as the state is very fragile."

The sticking point to negotiating an extension is what to do with more than 19,000 former Maoist soldiers who are living under supervision in camps throughout the country, their weapons locked away in containers.

The Maoists, who hold the most seats in the assembly, say they are ready to integrate half this force into a new national security force and rehabilitate the rest to civilian life.

Significant influence

Although there is general agreement over integration and rehabilitation, the opposition Nepali Congress Party is also insisting that the Maoists hand over their weapons as part of the deal to extend the constitutional deadline.

Image caption,
A new constitution is unlikely to be promulgated despite public pressure

But the Maoists are under pressure from hardliners within their own party not to make this concession.

"This is not the time for the major political parties to put forward demands and keep the constituent assembly hostage," says Maoist Vice-Chairman Baburam Bhattarai.

"The responsible political parties should sit down, have a dialogue and reach consensus," he says.

Many feel that reaching a deal is further complicated by the involvement of Nepal's giant southern neighbour, India.

It has been at the heart of Nepal's peace negotiations since 2005 and still exerts significant influence in Kathmandu.

"Over the past two years it's been quite clear that India has been suspicious of Maoist intentions," says Nepalese journalist Prashant Jha.

"While not revealing its cards openly, India seems to be backing the opposition to use this moment to pressurise the Maoists to do what they say," he says.

History shows that political deals in Nepal are often not struck until the last minute and this one is unlikely to be an exception.

But the country's embattled politicians are running out of time to agree on a compromise that will convince their people they are serious about completing the constitution and securing peace.

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