Nepal’s Crisis: Can a Broken Nation Remake Itself?

After a decade of war and nearly half a decade of political dysfunction, the impoverished Himalayan nation is struggling to refashion itself as a secular, pluralistic republic. Political bickering and factionalism is getting in the way.

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Prakash Mathema / AFP / Getty Images

Nepalese student activists shout slogans during a protest demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai in Kathmandu on June 17, 2012. The Himalayan nation plunged into political crisis after the constituent assembly was disbanded having failed to agree on a new constitution.

Not long ago, a gleaming white edifice in the Baneshwor neighborhood of Kathmandu evoked hope and optimism. The Chinese-built hall for Nepal’s Constituent Assembly, a 601-member body tasked with writing a constitution for the fledgling republic, was supposed to be the site of the country’s remaking after a decade-long Maoist insurgency that ended in 2006.

Instead, after yet another deadline for Nepal’s feuding lawmakers to draft a new constitution passed on May 27, the area has taken on a worn, deserted look. Gone are the thousands of protesters who converged here; so too, the hordes of security forces in riot gear. An eerie silence pervades life in Kathmandu, a capital city that has grown accustomed to political deadlock and dysfunction.

Nepal’s uneasy calm hides crises that are deepening every day. The major dispute centers around how this country of 26.6 million will be reshaped. That question has remained unanswered since the peace process began under U.N. auspices six years ago, marking the end of a nearly three-century-old Hindu monarchy and the awkward beginnings of a secular republic.

(MORE: Nepal’s rebels with a cause.)

The ruling Maoists are demanding a federalist state that gives power to regional groups. The most vocal proponents of federalism hail from the country’s southern plains and the eastern hills. They argue that federalism would help end centuries of discrimination they’ve felt from the capital and return power to ethnic groups that have been historically marginalized.

The more centrist Nepali Congress (NC) and Unified Marxist-Leninist (UML), the country’s second- and third-largest parties after the ruling Maoists, argue that dividing country along regional and ethnic lines will sow the seeds of disintegration. But some of these parties’ own members, including representatives of the Madhesis—an ethnic group from the southern plains abutting India—have threatened to quit if their demands of federalism are not fulfilled.

The political crisis thus pits those who can benefit from a federal Nepal against those who fear they will lose out, says Jhalak Subedi, who heads the Nepal South Asia Center, a Kathmandu-based think tank. The heart of deadlock is the power play between three forces, Subedi says. “The Maoists’ radical agendas have catapulted them to power. The reformists,  the NC and UML, resist change and the new force the Madhesis and the ethnic groups both demand federalism along ethnic lines,” he says, “A compromise among these players was inevitable. But each was also trying to obstruct the other. UML and NC were bent on weakening the Maoists.”

With just minutes to go before the end of the assembly’s term, Maoist Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai called for November 22 elections for the body, which doubles as parliament. Opposition leaders were quick to question the legitimacy of the Prime Minister, who has said he will stay in office at least until the November elections. Late last month President Ram Baran Yadav, a Nepali Congress politician, began criticizing Bhattarai’s decision to call for elections without seeking consensus from opposition parties. Bhattarai has rejected calls that he resign.

Joining the chorus against Bhattarai were dissidents from his own Maoists, who on June 19 formed a new group called Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (the original entity is known as the Unified Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist). They accuse the ruling party of deviating from its revolutionary ideals. The separation has not only marked another troubled chapter in Nepal’s politics, but also threatened to end the fragile peace after the splinter group’s leader Mohan Baidya said they “will take up arms if situation warrants.”

(PHOTOS: Life inside Nepal’s Maoist camps.)

Amid the political impasse, the deposed king hinted at a possible return of the Shah monarchy. “I think that people have expected some kind of role form me because the situation has significantly deteriorated,” Gyanendra Shaha told reporters on July 3. And he offered a role for himself: “I’m not a good politician, I am king. Any position less than this is not for me.” When a website of the former king was launched on May 27, many in Kathmandu wondered if it was as an ominous sign of the resurgence of former royals.

The Maoists, whose armed insurrection led to 16,000 deaths, present themselves as the party of the people, empowering minorities and low-caste groups marginalized under Nepal’s monarchy. They back a presidential system in which executive power would be vested in a directly-elected president. Maoist leader Prachanda is widely considered to be their candidate for the post. But the NC and UML want a parliamentary system with a prime minister elected by the body as executive. Maoists argue that the presidential system will provide political stability four a country that has seen four governments in as many years since the peace process began. But the opposition parties fear that such a system will lead to authoritarian rule.

When the bloody, decade long insurgency ended in 2006, Nepal was filled with a sense of potential. But efforts to rebuild the country have proved agonizing. There’s no doubt that the process has already seen some key outcomes: the end of monarchy and steps toward an inclusive political system. Indeed, a sense of mourning lingered after the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly, the most inclusive and diverse institution in the Nepal’s history. Now the country is bereft of a popularly mandated body. Several options including reviving the assembly and postponing the elections to forge consensus are being deliberated. The assembly didn’t achieve its mission of drafting a new constitution, but the longer the gleaming white edifice remains empty, the more the country fears for the future.

(MORE: After Maoist protests, a murky future.)