Riot police patrol streets as Nepal’s government collapses

NEPAL sank into political turmoil yesterday after politicians failed to agree on a new constitution, leaving the country with no legal government. The premier called new elections, but critics said he lacked the power to do so, forcing security forces on to high alert.

Riot police patrolled the streets after several political parties called for rallies to demand the resignation of prime minister Baburam Bhattarai and protested against his unilateral decision to call new elections.

“The country has plunged into a serious crisis,” said Ram Sharan Mahat, a senior leader of the country’s second-largest party, the Nepali Congress. He said that six months would not be enough time to prepare for a new election, adding: “This government has no legitimate grounds to continue.”

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The parties in Nepal’s Constituent Assembly failed to agree on a new blueprint for the Himalayan nation by their own deadline of midnight on Sunday, despite repeated extensions of the due date over the past four years. A key sticking point was whether the country’s states should be redrawn to give regional power bases to ethnic minorities.

Writing the new constitution was supposed to cap an interim period aimed at solidifying details of Nepal’s democracy after the country rejected royal rule and resolved a decade-long Maoist insurgency.

Mr Bhattarai, from the party of the former Maoists, said the previous constitutional assembly, elected four years ago, had failed and must be dissolved. He said he would head a caretaker government until the elections, which he set for 22 November.

He said: “We have no other option but to go back to the people and elect a new assembly to write the constitution.”

However, his plan immediately drew criticism from legal experts, who said any plans for new polling should be made in consultation with the country’s other political parties.

“It was politically, legally and morally incorrect of the prime minister to announce fresh elections,” said constitutional and legal expert Bhimarjun Acharya.

Police spokesman Binod Singh said thousands of police officers had been deployed in the capital, Kathmandu, and other major cities to stop any violence in the coming days.

At a rally in Kathmandu yesterday, groups of college students burnt effigies of Mr Bhattarai and demanded he resign.

Separately, a group supporting the abolished monarchy also demanded the prime minister’s resignation, blaming him for the country’s political crisis.

On Sunday, police had clashed briefly with protesters outside the Constituent Assembly, where political leaders from the country’s four main parties had been meeting in a last-minute attempt to agree on a new constitution before the deadline.

Much of the debate was over whether to draw state boundaries in such a way as to boost the political power of the country’s ethnic minorities.

Nepal’s minority ethnic groups and low-caste communities were overshadowed for centuries by the country’s elite, critics say. As Nepal has struggled to create a new government, those divisions have given rise to caste- and ethnic-based politicians, who insist their long-marginalised communities deserve to live in states that maximise their influence.