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Activists of Nepali Congress affiliated Nepal Students union burn an effigy of Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai as they demand his resignation in Katmandu, Nepal, Monday, May 28, 2012. (Binod Joshi/Associated Press/Binod Joshi/Associated Press)
Activists of Nepali Congress affiliated Nepal Students union burn an effigy of Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai as they demand his resignation in Katmandu, Nepal, Monday, May 28, 2012. (Binod Joshi/Associated Press/Binod Joshi/Associated Press)

Nepal, without constitutional rudder, drifts into peril Add to ...

A crisis is fast developing in Nepal, where the breakdown of constitutional talks has left the country without a government and no consensus on what to do.

The armed forces and security services, which now technically report to no one, are on high alert, and police have deployed riot squads around the capital, Kathmandu.

Wedged between India and China, Nepal now faces its most anxious moment since emerging six years ago from a long war with Maoist rebels that killed 16,000 people and shut its 28 million citizens out of the economic growth that has swept the rest of the region. Most Nepalis remain desperately poor, and their hopes for change have been quashed by this political debacle.

The deadline for the adoption of a new constitution expired at midnight Sunday with no agreement. There had been persistent rumours in the preceding days that a deal was finally done, and Nepalis couldn’t quite believe that the last chance had come and gone.

But now the truth is dawning, and with it, a growing sense of unease, said Manjushree Thapa, author of the political history Forget Kathmandu, in a telephone interview from the capital. “Now we are in legal never-never land,” she said. “It’s deeply obscure, frustrating, and terrifying.”

Nepal’s political leaders have been wrangling over the constitution for four years, ever since landmark democratic elections for a Constituent Assembly that followed the end of the war. Four times they extended the life of the assembly, until the Supreme Court ruled it could be extended no further. But there is no provision for what to do if the term expires and there is no new constitution.

Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai insists he can keep governing until elections are held for a new assembly in six months, but the opposition parties say that would be illegal and are demanding he step aside. They accuse him of acting unilaterally to cement his hold on power. The opposition, however, has made no counterproposal for how to run the country without a parliament or an executive. Three parties that were part of Mr. Bhattarai’s government have quit, apparently intent on protecting their own power base.

The president, who is meant to have a largely ceremonial role, has floated the idea that he could now take up executive powers. Some diehard royalists are suggesting the king, deposed in 2008 after massive street demonstrations ended centuries of royal rule, should run the state.

Governance experts, both in Nepal and beyond, are stumped. Bipin Adhikari, an expert in constitutional law, said he believes the prime minister should have resigned when the constitutional assembly deadline passed, since it was the source of his authority. “But even before that, he should have had an exit plan ready before the expiry of the term,” he said.

The talks broke down over the issue of federalism. The Maoists, former insurgents who won the elections, and their allies from a huge collection of ethnic minority groups want a federal system, with as many as 14 states, that will devolve power from the centre. The opposition insists that ethnic-based federalism will only lead to more conflict.

A federal system will strip the high-caste Hindus, who make up the traditional political elite, of much of their power, said Prashant Jha, who covers Nepal for the respected Indian daily The Hindu. When push came to shove – approving the new constitution – they were not willing to sign, despite the fact that three-quarters of Nepalis come from the caste and ethnic groups that have been shut out of power, and are insistent a new system include them.

“The fundamental battle in Nepal is not between Maoists and democrats or Maoists and royalists,” Mr. Jha said. “It’s how to restructure Nepali state and society in a way that 60 to 70 per cent of the population get a degree of power at the centre and in their regions where they are dominant – and the Constituent Assembly failed because of the resistance of dominance groups to go the extra mile and share power.”

Other contentious issues in the political process had been resolved, notably the disarmament of the Maoist insurgents and their incorporation into the armed forces. The Maoists have been thoroughly assimilated into the existing political structures.

The threat of a return to a war like that of a decade ago seems unlikely, Mr. Jha said. But that does not mean there is no risk of violence. “The risk that exists is of ethnic conflict, a radicalization based on the idea ‘the constituent assembly did not deliver you anything – the democratic, constitutional way is futile and only through radical militancy that you can get anything.’ ”

Even without violence, the crisis can only worsen the difficult lives of the vast majority of Nepalis, who had pinned hopes for economic growth on a new era of political stability, Ms. Thapa, the author, said. The country’s human development indicators are among the worst in Asia; the badly polluted capital spends much of each day without electricity, but the lack of political progress has stifled all efforts to harness Nepal’s vast hydroelectric potential.

“Everyone is just weepy,” Ms. Thapa said. “We felt, finally Nepal is going to have its day – and, no. When I was 21, the first democracy movement of my lifetime happened. I’m in my mid-40s now and we’re still waiting for democracy to take hold. It’s so frustrating.”

With a report from AFP

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