Nepal’s leaders failed Sunday to agree on a new post-war constitution ahead of a midnight deadline, forcing the dissolution of parliament and plunging the nation into a political crisis.
The Constituent Assembly was elected in 2008 after a decade of civil war to write a new national constitution and oversee the peace process that began when the conflict ended in 2006.
But Maoist chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal said the key disagreements on creating federal states would not be resolved and the 601-member assembly would be disbanded.
“We could not reach an agreement despite several meetings. So the possibility of promulgating the constitution has ended,” he said.
“We could not save the Constituent Assembly. We are holding discussions with senior party leaders on how to move ahead.”
Thousands of people from various ethnic and political groups had gathered near the assembly, waving flags and chanting slogans, with security forces preventing the crowd from getting too close.
As tension mounted before midnight, several protesters tried to get through a security cordon and clashed with police who fired tear gas shells, but there were no serious injuries.
The army was on alert nationwide and ready to prevent any outbreak of violence if the police became overwhelmed, the Rajdhani daily newspaper said.
The new constitution was intended to create a new secular, democratic republic following the abolition of Nepal’s centuries-old Hindu monarchy after the Maoist rebels gave up arms and won the 2008 elections.
It was also meant to bring stability to the impoverished Himalayan nation and unite its more than 100 ethnic minorities in a country traumatised by the death of 16,000 people in the civil war.
But while the Maoists, who dominate the assembly, want the creation of up to 14 states named after ethnic groups, their rivals say dividing Nepal along ethnic lines will fuel unrest.
Despite four extensions of the assembly’s mandate, it has been unable to complete the far-reaching document, and the Supreme Court has ruled that any further extensions would be illegal.
It was not immediately clear what would happen following the breakdown of talks but Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai was due to address the nation over the crisis.
Constituent Assembly chairman Subas Nembang warned of a “political void”, with a caretaker government and president having no mandate, and no chamber in place to pass laws and rubber-stamp decisions.
The widespread hope in Nepal that followed the end of the civil war and the abolition of the unpopular monarchy has been replaced by a growing sense of anger and frustration.
Political instability has stifled economic growth, forcing many people to seek work overseas, and thousands of Nepalese have taken to the streets in recent weeks to protest at the lack of progress in their country.