Nepal misses deadline for constitution after raucous protests

Constitution assembly members shout slogans before leaving the Constitution Assembly hall in Kathmandu, Nepal, Jan 22 2015. Nepal's lawmakers failed to agree on a new constitution Thursday as a midnight deadline expired, deepening public frustration
Constitution assembly members shout slogans before leaving the Constitution Assembly hall in Kathmandu, Nepal, Jan 22 2015. Nepal's lawmakers failed to agree on a new constitution Thursday as a midnight deadline expired, deepening public frustration over the slow pace of political progress in the young republic. -- PHOTO: EPA

KATHMANDU (AFP) - Nepal's lawmakers failed to agree on a new constitution Thursday as a midnight deadline expired, deepening public frustration over the slow pace of political progress in the young republic.

Parliament Speaker Subash Nembang adjourned the late-night session after opposition lawmakers rushed into the well of the main chamber, shouted slogans and disrupted proceedings for nearly three hours.

"If a culture of obstruction is allowed, there will be no constitution," Nembang told assembled lawmakers.

"If political parties are not able to fulfil the commitment they made to the people... they will never trust us," he added.

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

The Maoist-led opposition brought parliamentary proceedings to a halt Thursday, in a chaotic bid to prevent lawmakers belonging to the ruling coalition from proposing a vote on disputed issues in the charter.

But Speaker Nembang said he intended to allow the ruling parties to present their proposal in the coming days unless lawmakers arrived at a consensus, in order to "guarantee the constitution within a specific time".

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 deployed 1,000 police to guard parliament after the violence spilled over onto the streets, and on Thursday 2,000 flag-waving protesters 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 guerillas 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.

'COMPROMISE FORMULA'

Some hoped that an emergency meeting of top leaders Thursday afternoon would prompt an eleventh-hour agreement on the charter, but talks ended without an accord.

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.

Maoist chief Pushpa Kamal Dahal, known better as Prachanda, said he wanted discussions to continue but warned that he would not allow the ruling coalition to write a "regressive" constitution.

"We tried to achieve a consensus until the end...we didn't want to disappoint the Nepalese people," Prachanda told reporters.

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 US$1.25 (S$1.66) 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.

K.P. Oli, chief of the ruling UML party, told Nepal's Avenues TV that the coalition was preparing for a vote.

"We have the two-thirds majority. Just because a few people make noise, they can't hijack the assembly," Oli said.

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.