Nepalese leaders vow draft constitution in a year

Newly elected members of Nepal's Constituent Assembly attend the first parliament meeting after November elections, in Kathmandu on January 22, 2014. The new assembly is elected to write a constitution after the abolition of the 240-year-old feudal m
Newly elected members of Nepal's Constituent Assembly attend the first parliament meeting after November elections, in Kathmandu on January 22, 2014. The new assembly is elected to write a constitution after the abolition of the 240-year-old feudal monarchy that the Maoists fought against. --PHOTO: REUTERS 

KATHMANDU (AFP) - Leaders from across Nepal's political divide pledged Wednesday to draw up a constitution for the war-torn Himalayan nation within a year as the new parliament convened for the first time.

More than two months after an election which was marred by fraud accusations from the defeated Maoist party, the assembly tasked with agreeing on the constitution held its first meeting in Kathmandu. But while there were threats from the Maoists of street protests if they end up feeling marginalised in the constituent assembly, they did join the other parties in promising to reach an agreement within the next 12 months.

"Everyone wants us to deliver the constitution," said Sushil Koirala, the president of the Nepali Congress party and the man expected to become the next prime minister. "It will be drafted within a year."

His words were echoed by Baburam Bhattarai, a former Maoist prime minister who is also a member of the new 601-member assembly.

"On the occasion of the first meeting of another constituent assembly today... let us commit to deliver a progressive constitution within a year," he said on Twitter.

The pledges lent an air of optimism to the new assembly - which will also double up as a parliament - nearly two years after lawmakers last met.

The Maoists only reluctantly agreed to take part in the assembly last month after initially threatening to boycott it over accusations of vote-rigging in the November 19 polls. They were soundly beaten by both the Congress and the Unified Marxist-Leninist (UML) parties, which are still locked in negotiations over forming a new coalition government.

The former rebels won Nepal's first post-war elections in 2008 by a landslide, two years after signing an agreement to end a 10-year uprising against the monarchy. As part of the deal, King Gyanendra agreed to stand down.

But the ensuing four years were marked by a series of short-term coalition governments, mainly led by the Maoists, and the first assembly broke up amid rancour in May 2012.

Mr Koirala said his party would strive to reach a consensus but warned that a parliamentary minority would not be allowed to scupper an agreement.

Nepal's political woes have hampered efforts to fire up growth in a nation which borders both India and China and is one of the poorest in Asia.

Annual GDP growth slid to 4.6 per cent last year while inflation is hovering around 10 per cent, forcing hundreds of thousands of Nepalis to migrate overseas for jobs.

Analysts say all the main parties know they cannot afford to allow their disagreements over the terms of the constitution to go on much longer.

"The parties will have to work things out, they have no other option, no other way out," Lok Raj Baral, executive chairman of Kathmandu's Nepal Centre for Contemporary Studies, told AFP.

The main differences between the parties on the constitution revolve around state boundaries and the powers of the president.

Efforts to agree on a new coalition have also snagged over disagreements about the carve-up of key posts and ministries.

The new parliament's most senior member, 86-year-old Surya Bahadur Thapa, urged his fellow lawmakers not to squander the "historic" opportunity before them.

"The elections have cleared the political horizon and if we don't deliver the constitution this time ...we will be blamed by everyone", the five-time premier told the assembly, packed with lawmakers wearing traditional Nepali tunics, trousers and saris.