FOR the four years when Nepal’s Constituent Assembly was meant to be drafting a new constitution, the country’s political leaders were really playing a game of musical chairs around the prime minister’s seat. At midnight on May 27th the music stopped, without a constitution and with the Maoist former rebels occupying the premiership.
The people of Nepal were first promised a democratically drafted constitution 60 years ago, but a constituent assembly came into being only after a Maoist insurgency ended in 2006. In what now seems a staggering oversight, the authors of a 2007 interim constitution never imagined that the Constituent Assembly, charged with the task of writing the permanent constitution and acting as an interim legislature, might fail to complete its work. The country is now plunged into deep legal and political uncertainty.
The process failed over whether Nepal should be divided into federal states that would also have an ethnic identity. Reports suggest that two opposition parties, the Nepali Congress (NC) and the Unified Marxist Leninists (UML), refused a compromise offered by ethnic groups. They then refused to put the question to a vote of the full assembly, fearing that they might lose.
Three days earlier the Supreme Court had ruled against a further extension of the assembly’s term, which had already been extended four times. The court said that if the assembly expired without completing its task, then fresh elections should be held. That ruling was welcomed by the NC and UML. As the minutes ticked down on May 27th, the Maoists called their bluff and announced elections in November.
Now the opposition parties are calling fresh polls “unconstitutional”. By their reluctance to face the electorate, and the contrasting willingness of the Maoists and their regional allies to do so, some say it is clear where the parties think the balance of support in the country lies.
The failure of the assembly is a painful blow. Protests followed the passing of the deadline on Sunday, with effigies of the Maoist prime minister, Baburam Bhattarai, being burnt in the streets. Ordinary people are fed up with the bickering and want the government to focus on the economy.
However, the assembly can point to some achievements. The Maoists, who waged a ten-year insurgency before joining mainstream politics, have disbanded their army, contested one election (which they won) and now called for another. The Constituent Assembly itself, elected by proportional representation, gave previously excluded social groups a role in national issues. Attention now shifts to whether and how the election can be held. Fresh polls will require amendments to the interim constitution, but the only body able to amend it has been dissolved.
Mr Bhattarai has appealed to the opposition parties to rejoin his cabinet and form a unity government. But it is President Ram Baran Yadav who may now matter more. The NC and the UML have appealed to him not to endorse the election date. A presidential adviser said his boss “does not have any executive authority” and that his role is to nurture consensus. So far Mr Yadav is keeping his options open.