The leaders of four major parties had been locked in a marathon attempt to hammer out a deal before the Jan. 22 deadline for delivering a draft of the constitution, but it fell apart amid a parliamentary brawl that saw chairs thrown and microphones smashed.
An alliance of 30 political parties led by Maoists has ratcheted up agitation for a federalist state, a key issue and contentious for the major political party leaders.
A general strike on Tuesday followed another led by Maoist leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal, better known as Prachanda, on January 13 which saw public transport, shops, schools and offices shut down in the capital, Kathmandu and major cities across the country.
Among the opposition’s demands are for the inclusion of around a dozen states based on identity. The alliance argues that such a model would address problems of discrimination against the marginalized groups and help to end the exclusionary nature of the polity.
The ruling centrist Nepali Congress and the center-left Unified Marxist-Leninist party -- which despite its name, is not hardline communist -- and the Maoists, who waged an armed insurgency between 1996 and 2006, are at loggerheads on several issues pertaining to the new constitution. The ruling parties have favored fewer states based on economic viability, arguing that identity-based federalism would threaten national integrity.
“Although we have made some progress in issues like judiciary and electoral system, we are yet to agree on the form of governance,” Prachanda told reporters on Monday. “If other parties become flexible on the issue of federalism, we will reciprocate them by giving up our stance on the form of governance.”
The first constituent assembly, which doubled as a parliament, was elected in 2008 to draft a post-war constitution then dissolved in May 2012 after the body failed to agree on the charter.
In elections held in November 2013 for the second constituent assembly, the Maoists, which had won the largest number of seats in the 601-member parliament, were routed. The Nepali Congress and the Unified Marxist-Leninist emerged as the largest and second-largest party.
In February last year, Sushil Koirala, the current president of the Nepali Congress, was elected prime minister of the coalition government, promising to deliver a constitution within a year. But Koirala, whose tenure is likely to end by Jan. 22, failed to fulfill his pledge. Fissures have begun to emerge among the ruling groups as K.P. Sharma Oli, the chairman of the Unified Marxist-Leninist party, appears desperate to succeed Koirala as the prime minister.
The ruling coalition, which enjoys a near two-thirds majority required to approve the constitution, is pushing for a vote in the assembly, but the opposition has put pressure on the government to deliver the charter through consensus. The assembly has mandate for three more years.
Party leaders claim that the differences are genuinely political and they are keen on restructuring the centuries-old centralized state to make it inclusive, but political pundits argue that the politicians are eyeing the corridors of power.
“The constitution drafting process cannot be separated from the power sharing deal because for the leaders, power is their primary motivation,” said Post Bahadur Basnet, a political commentator based in Kathmandu.
“It would be ideal to forge consensus. Indeed, many leaders repeat that constitution drafting should not be hamstrung by politics of number games. But that’s not something our leaders are willing to do,” he said.
Pitamber Sharma, a former vice chairman of the National Planning Commission and an expert on federalism, said politicians have used federalism for political gains.
“The party leaders are not serious about federalism. They would make pronouncements, for example, we need to have seven federal states, but they don't explain the rationale behind the numbers,” he said in an interview with Kantipur, Nepal’s largest-selling newspaper.
“The idea of federalism is that our country's diversity should get reflected in it. But both the ruling parties and opposition have adopted in extremist positions,” he said. “Neither the ethnic states nor the geographical states are answer to Nepal's problems. We should carve out states based on economic viability as well as identity.”
Nepal, home to 26 million people, has five different geographical zones and more than 100 ethnicities and nearly as many languages.
While politicians have been accused of being insensitive to the people’s aspirations, commentators say they are also responsible for holding back the country and the crucial post-war recovery.
“This week, Nepalis will rue yet another missed opportunity at constitution making, which could have put the country firmly back on the road of development and high growth,” wrote Akhilesh Upadhyay, editor in chief of The Kathmandu Post, on Monday.
“But unless our political leadership makes a fundamental shift in the way they approach their politics, it is difficult to see a new constitution being promulgated.”