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Nepal parliament in chaos as constitution deadline looms

KATHMANDU: Nepal’s opposition lawmakers brought parliament to a standstill Thursday, just hours before a midnight deadline to agree on a constitution, as public frustration over the slow pace of progress deepens.

Lawmakers chanted slogans and rushed into the well of parliament as it opened, in a chaotic bid to prevent ruling lawmakers from proposing a vote on disputed issues in the constitution.

Bhim Rawal, a lawmaker from the ruling UML party, said opposition Maoists had “taken the entire assembly hostage by disrupting proceedings”.

“There is no scope for talks with an opposition like this,” Rawal told AFP.

The country’s rival parties disagree over some key issues and are widely expected to miss the deadline, further aggravating public disillusionment with the political process.

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

An estimated 1,000 police have been deployed around the parliament building after the violence this week spilled over onto the streets.

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 Maoists and ruling parties has intensified, paralysing the drafting process.

“We have waited so many years, we are tired of these leaders,” said Kathmandu-based trader Niraj Shrestha, reflecting a growing sense of frustration over the delayed charter.

“If our lawmakers want to, they can draft the constitution in 24 hours, but I don’t think even another 24 years will make a difference to their way of functioning,” the 39-year-old told AFP.

– ‘Common agreement’ –

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

“There is still a chance for consensus, and 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 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.

In an editorial titled “Collective failure”, the Republica daily urged “cross-party commitment to deliver constitution by a precise date”.

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.” (AFP)

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