Political turmoil looms over Nepal's peaks

BINAJ GURUBACHARYA - Associated Press
FILE - In this May 25, 2011 file photo, supporters of Nepal's pro-monarch National Democratic Party march toward Nepal's Constitutional Assembly building during a street march in Katmandu, Nepal. Five years after the country's communist rebels gave up a bloody revolt to join a peace process, raising hopes of a new era of stability, the country remains trapped in a cycle of political turmoil with its dreams of becoming a modern Switzerland of the East unrealized. Nepal went seven of the past 12 months without a prime minister because of a power struggle between the main political parties. (AP Photo/Gemunu Amarasinghe, File)
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FILE - In this May 25, 2011 file photo, supporters of Nepal's pro-monarch National Democratic Party march toward Nepal's Constitutional Assembly building during a street march in Katmandu, Nepal. Five years after the country's communist rebels gave up a bloody revolt to join a peace process, raising hopes of a new era of stability, the country remains trapped in a cycle of political turmoil with its dreams of becoming a modern Switzerland of the East unrealized. Nepal went seven of the past 12 months without a prime minister because of a power struggle between the main political parties.

KATMANDU, Nepal (AP) — Amongst Nepal's Himalayan peaks and glacier-fed rivers is a capital with only a few hours a week of running water. The country had no prime minister much of the past year, and risks having no government at all by the weekend.

Five years after the country's communist rebels gave up a bloody revolt to join a peace process — raising hopes of a new era of stability — the country is sinking deeper into political turmoil, leaving its dreams of becoming a modern Switzerland of the East unrealized.

Nepal went seven of the past 12 months without a prime minister because of a power struggle between the main political parties. They still haven't figured out what to do with the former insurgent fighters, many of whom are still confined to demobilization camps.

And on Saturday, the Constitutional Assembly — which currently serves as the country's legislature — is set to dissolve without coming close to agreeing on the document that is supposed to govern the new Nepal.

The Nepalese are growing fed up with the politicians and their political battles that have left the serious problems of this poor south Asian nation to fester.

"They have broken every promise they have made to the people," said Hari Tamang, a student who joined a recent protest demanding action on the new constitution.

Residents of the impoverished, dysfunctional nation face up to 14 hours of daily power cuts because the government has been unable to build new hydroelectricity plants. The capital, Katmandu, gets two hours of water every two or three days, and frequent fuel shortages force drivers to line up for a few liters of rationed gasoline and diesel.

The squabbling delayed last year's budget, forcing the government to put off or scrap plans to build roads, irrigation projects and other agricultural infrastructure. Finance Secretary Krishna Hari Baskota said the government failed to spend half the development budget for the fiscal year that ends in July.

"Countrywide people are unhappy with the leadership," said Ameet Dhakal, editor of the Republica newspaper.

Since the assembly was first elected in 2008 to write a constitution aimed at cementing the peace and bringing Nepal from a monarchy to a republic, the country has produced three different governments and no constitution.

The government of the Maoists, parliament's largest party, fell apart over a battle with the president and army chief, leaving the smaller parties to join together to form a new government. But the Maoists demanded they be given another shot at power and the constitution-writing process ground to a halt.

Some of the disagreements center on whether to divide the country in a federal system based on ethnic groups or strictly by geography. But the parties mostly squabble over who gets to lead the country.

When the Constitutional Assembly's two-year term was about to expire last May a last minute deal was reached, with the Maoists agreeing to extend the deadline for a year in return for the government's resignation. But that created even more turmoil, with the parties unable to agree on a new government for seven months, frittering away more than half of the assembly's extension. On the 17th round of voting, in February, they finally chose a new leader.

Fed up with the delays in the peace process, the U.N. refused to grant its peace mission in the country yet another extension and pulled out in January.

The population is fed up as well, holding almost daily protests in Katmandu demanding the parties get down to work.

"You have taken your pay, now give us our constitution," hundreds of protesters chanted at a weekend rally called by a group called "Nepal Unites."

Subsequent rallies near the Constituent Assembly prompted authorities to declare a no-protest zone in the surrounding streets.

"When the term was extended last year they promised they would get their act together and complete the constitution but they spent the whole term trying to unseat each other to get in power," said Tamang, the protesting student.

The political parties acknowledge they have failed to live up to expectations.

Maoist leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal — who once vowed to turn his underdeveloped country into the next Switzerland — said there had been some progress in the constitution but that it has been slow.

"We need to apologize to the people for the delay in constitution writing," said Dahal, who commanded his rebels during the 10-year battle that killed more than 13,000 people before joining the peace process.

The parties blame each other for the delays.

"We want to complete the peace process soon and promulgate the new constitution but that is not possible unless the Maoists cooperate," said Ram Chandra Poudel, deputy leader of the Nepali Congress, the main opposition party.

The government needs two-thirds of the assembly to agree to a new extension, the same majority needed eventually to approve a constitution.

If an extension vote fails, the assembly and the government will be forced to dissolve, leaving a political void, though few believe violence will return.

Dhakal, the newspaper editor, said the mainly ceremonial president would likely gather the parties to decide on a next step.

All the parties have said they want to push forward with the peace process and the Maoists publicly announced they would not go back to fighting.

"Even after the U.N. left, the peace process did not collapse completely like some predicted and we have managed to continue," Dahal said.