Protests stall Nepal parliament as charter deadline looms

AFP , Thursday 22 Jan 2015

Opposition protests brought Nepal's parliament to a grinding halt Thursday, with hopes fading fast of an eleventh-hour agreement on a new constitution before a midnight deadline expires.

Lawmakers rushed into the well of the parliament chamber as they reconvened late Thursday, in a chaotic bid to prevent politicians from the ruling party proposing a vote on disputed issues in the constitution.

"We want a constitution based on consensus," the opposition lawmakers shouted.

Nepal's rival parties have spent years mired in deadlock while trying to reach agreement on a constitution for the young republic.

Parliament speaker Subash Nembang called an emergency meeting of top leaders Thursday afternoon in a last-ditch push for a deal on the national charter, but talks ended without an accord.

"The country is watching us... what kind of message are we giving?" said Nembang.

"Let us work together and conclude the process."

Analysts say the protracted stalemate raises the risk of unrest in the impoverished Himalayan nation, where lawmakers this week threw chairs and scuffled in parliament as tempers frayed.

Authorities have deployed 1,000 police to guard parliament after the violence spilled over onto the streets, and on Thursday 2,000 flag-waving protestors demonstrated outside.

"I am very sad today. We voted for them... and they have failed to deliver," said Kathmandu-based x-ray technician Moti Lal Sharma Thakur, reflecting a growing sense of frustration over the delayed charter.

"We had high hopes and they have disappointed us yet again," the 28-year-old told AFP.

The constitution was intended to conclude a peace process begun in 2006 when Maoist guerrillas entered politics, ending a decade-long insurgency that left an estimated 16,000 people dead.

Six prime ministers and two elections later, discord between the opposition Maoists and ruling parties has intensified, paralysing the drafting process.

Hours before parliament opened, former Maoist premier Baburam Bhattarai urged lawmakers to "commit to drafting a constitution based on common agreement".

"Only a constitution based on consensus will ensure long-term peace in the country," he wrote in a message on his official Facebook page.

A key sticking point concerns internal borders, with the opposition pushing for provinces to be created along lines that could favour historically marginalised communities.

Other parties have attacked this model, calling it too divisive and a threat to national unity.

The ruling parties and their allies have the two-thirds parliamentary majority they need to approve a constitution without Maoist support.

But the former insurgents have warned of further conflict if they fail to take opposition views into account.

A missed deadline will prolong instability and hurt economic growth in a country where one out of four people survive on less than $1.25 a day, according to World Bank data.

Several lawmakers from the ruling coalition told AFP that a vote was the only way forward, after a string of missed deadlines.

But analysts say such measures would alienate marginalised communities and spell disaster for the country.

"A constitution achieved with only minimum consensus will have no scope of success," said Lok Raj Baral, executive chairman of the Nepal Centre for Contemporary Studies.

"Both sides need to realise that a compromise formula is the only way out," Baral told AFP.

The prospect of instability has worried neighbouring India and China, with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in November urging politicians to hammer out a charter based on consensus.

As the deadline approached, senior Maoist leader Narayan Kaji Shrestha told AFP he saw almost no chance of an immediate agreement.

"We were hoping to at least complete a draft constitution but even that hasn't happened," Shrestha said.

"We cannot wait three more years, the people won't forgive us."

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