Disagreement over the drafting of Nepal's new constitution turned violent on Tuesday, as lawmakers with the country's Maoist opposition kicked desks, threw chairs, and attacked the parliamentary speaker after a tense session degenerated into a brawl.
About a dozen security guards were wounded in the early morning scuffle between opposition politicians and members of the government's ruling coalition. At a second session later that day, opposition members disrupted the speaker's address by chanting slogans for more than an hour.
Tensions also flared outside of the parliament's walls, where an alliance spearheaded by the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) and the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) called for a general strike. Supporters rallied against the government, shutting down schools, stores, and traffic.
The Associated Press reported that police had arrested about 50 protesters who were attempting to enforce the strike — including by setting on fire the cars of people who refused to participate.
At the heart of the disagreement is a draft for Nepal's constitution, and Thursday's deadline for its adoption. The country has been ruled by an interim constitution since 2007 following a 10-year civil war between the Maoists and the government.
The first Constituent Assembly, which had a Maoist majority, abolished the monarchy and declared Nepal a republic, but failed to deliver a constitution, as the political landscape remained deeply fractured. The second Constituent Assembly, which was elected in 2013 and is ruled by a coalition that excludes the Maoists, promised to draft a constitution within a year of its first session — that is, by this Thursday.
The ruling and opposition parties greatly disagree both on the content of the constitution and on the process to be adopted in order to pass it. Parties representing various minorities have been pushing for federalism, and the opposition proposes organizing Nepal in provinces along ethnic lines.
Though there is disagreement about the nature of the country's system of government, electoral model, judiciary, and citizenship rights, the ruling coalition vowed to go ahead with the vote despite the opposition's protest. It has sufficient support in parliament to attempt adoption of the constitution without the participation of the Maoists, who argue that discussions should continue despite the deadline — the latest of several.
"We will bring the draft despite the protests," said Jhalnath Khanal, leader of the Communist Party of Nepal (Unifed Marxist-Leninist), one of the parties in the ruling coalition. "If they continue to block the assembly meeting we will find other alternatives, but we will bring the draft."
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The country has a history of fragile coalitions destabilized by a profusion of parties with diverging priorities and political vision.
"There was never a time when all parties had the incentive to work together," Prashant Jha, author of a book on Nepal's transition to democracy, wrote for India's Hindustan Times. "Their energies were invested in ousting the government of the day, not allow it to take credit for any achievement, and instead get back to power. Instability was the norm."
While the ruling coalition controls two-thirds of the assembly, resistance to the proposed draft is fierce. Opposition leaders have been arguing for general agreement as opposed to a majority vote, and have threatened sustained protests and strikes if their calls are ignored.
"We have already pushed for consensus," Maoist opposition leader Giriraj Mani Pokharel said in defense of his party's actions. "The Constituent Assembly chairman's push for majority process invited confrontation."
The hostility is only likely to escalate should the ruling coalition proceed with a majority vote.
"The decision by the ruling coalition to push through a constitution without consensus will shove Nepal back into conflict," Gyanu Adhikari, a journalist with the Nepali news site The Record, told VICE News. "Nepal's constitution cannot be written by marginalizing the Maoists, Madhesi, women, indigenous, and the Dalits. To do so is to reject the peace process and the gains of the people's movement that established inclusion, federalism and secularism as the national agenda."
While missing yet another deadline doesn't bode well for the country's future unity, doing so at the cost of excluding a number of constituencies might be just as dangerous. Adhikari added that the country has plenty of other problems, including severe gas shortages, rampant unemployment, and large-scale migration to the Arabian Gulf and Malaysia.
"The government has utterly failed to provide even basic services, like decent healthcareand education to people," Adhikari said. "Instead of solving these livelihood issues, the parties running the government are taking Nepal into another conflict."
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