News / Asia

Nepal Backslides Into Political Crisis

Members of Nepal Student Union affiliated with Nepali Congress chant slogans while they burn an effigy of Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai in Katmandu, Nepal, May 31, 2012.Members of Nepal Student Union affiliated with Nepali Congress chant slogans while they burn an effigy of Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai in Katmandu, Nepal, May 31, 2012.
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Members of Nepal Student Union affiliated with Nepali Congress chant slogans while they burn an effigy of Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai in Katmandu, Nepal, May 31, 2012.
Members of Nepal Student Union affiliated with Nepali Congress chant slogans while they burn an effigy of Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai in Katmandu, Nepal, May 31, 2012.
Anjana Pasricha
Four years ago, Nepal's citizens were optimistic about the newly-elected parliament that was writing a new, democratic constitution for the country after a Maoist rebellion ended.  But today, the tiny Himalayan country is sliding back into crisis with squabbling political parties failing to agree on the shape of the constitution or the way ahead for the country.

The Nepali Congress Party is one of two major political parties in Nepal which has decided not to take part in elections scheduled to be held in November.  
 
The elections are being held to choose a new constituent assembly to draft a democratic constitution for Nepal.  Elected in 2008, the last assembly failed to complete the task despite two extensions.
 
When its term expired May 27 and parliament was disbanded, Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai declared himself the head of a caretaker government.   
 
But the leader of the Nepali Congress party, Arjun Narasingha, said his party will not take part in polls conducted by Bhattarai's government.  

"This government is illegitimate. They have no moral right to stay.  They have no political or executive right to hold the election.  This government should resign," said Narasingha.

The strong words aimed at the caretaker government headed by the Maoists symbolize the massive problems facing Nepal because of its fractured polity.  
 
Four years ago, the mood was radically different.  A decade-long Maoist insurgency had ended, and the monarchy had been abolished.  Nepal appeared set to become one of the world's newest democracies.   
 
Deep differences and infighting among the country's three main political parties, however, have created an impasse which is becoming difficult to resolve.
 
The Nepali Congress and the Communist Party deeply distrust the Maoists who head the caretaker government, and who won the most seats in the last elections.
 
The two parties insist that the Maoists will not stage free and fair elections.  They want to be part of a new government which will supervise the polls.
 
At Nepal's Center for Contemporary Studies in Kathmandu, Lok Raj Baral says there is growing skepticism over the will of Nepal's political leaders to join forces and give their country a new deal.  He accuses them of jockeying for power.
 
"It is the failure of political parties, I don't blame only one party, it is the failure of all political leaders. They are all so preoccupied with politics of chair, they did not give much thought to the drafting of constitution," noted Baral.  

The framing of the constitution got stuck on a key point, whether the country should be divided into a dozen small states along ethnic lines so that some of the larger minority groups become politically empowered.  The proposal is supported by the Maoists and many small ethnic parties.  They say minorities, which have been marginalized for centuries, need better representation.
 
But the Nepali Congress and the Communist Party, who represent the traditional ruling elite, insist that ethnic federalism will sow the seeds of the country's disintegration.
 
As observers worry that the political impasse is only worsening, Sarah Levitt-Shore at the American-based non-governmental group Carter Center in Nepal, says it is critical for a political consensus to emerge on the way forward.

"There is a lot of good work that has been done, they reached agreement on nearly all the issues that were needed," said Levitt-Shore.  "It certainly is the case that federalism was one of the major challenges, one of the major outstanding issues, but even there they were able to find large amounts of common ground.  So it is everyone's hope that all the good work that was done in the last four years can be built upon and the political process can pick up where they left off."   

Those hopes may not be easily addressed.
 
The editor of Nepali Times newspaper, Kunda Dixit, says Nepal is bracing for months of political uncertainty.  But at the same time, he says many people feel that taking some more time to draft the constitution may serve the country well in the long run.
 
"It is better not to have a constitution than to have a totally flawed one, and therefore, there is some amount of relief as well," said Dixit.

For now, Nepal faces key challenges: the political legitimacy of its caretaker government is under question and there is still no sign that political parties are close to reaching agreement on a new constitution.

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