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Protests threat mars Nepal parliament debut


Supporters of the 33-party alliance, led by the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist, chant slogans as they demonstrate in front of the parliament building in Kathmandu. Photo - AFP

Kathmandu: Nepal's former ruling Maoists threatened to embark on a wave of street protests on Wednesday as the newly-elected parliament convened for the first time to begin work on drawing up a post-war constitution.  

Party leaders have set themselves a 12-month deadline to reach a consensus on a draft constitution, promising to overcome their outstanding differences eight years after the end of a decade-long civil war.

But a senior member of the Maoists, which suffered a humiliating defeat in a November 19 general election, warned his party's resolve should not be underestimated despite its reduced presence in the constituent assembly, which doubles up as a parliament.

"We will have to be vigilant and may resort to street protests to ensure that our agendas are addressed by the constituent assembly," Ganesh Man Pun said on Wednesday ahead of the formal opening ceremony.

The Maoists only reluctantly agreed to take part in the assembly after initially threatening to boycott it over accusations of electoral fraud.

They were soundly beaten by both the first-placed Nepali Congress and the Unified Marxist-Leninist (UML) parties who are still locked in negotiations about forming a new coalition government.

The Maoists won the last elections in 2008 by a landslide, only two years after signing a peace agreement to end their 10-year uprising against the monarchy. As part of the deal, King Gyanendra agreed to stand down.

But the ensuing four years were marked by a series of short-term coalition governments, mainly led by the Maoists, and the first assembly broke up amid rancour in May 2012.

Congress leader Gagan Thapa said that politicians would not miss a second opportunity to reach a deal which would effectively complete Nepal's peace process.

'No alternative'"Countdown has begun... We have no alternative to delivering the constitution within a year," Thapa told The Kathmandu Post.

Congress president Sushil Koirala, who is tipped to become prime minister, said his party would strive to reach consensus but warned that a parliamentary minority would not be allowed to scupper any agreement.

"If not through consensus, contentious issues will be sorted through voting," Koirala told reporters.

Underlining the divisions within the war-torn nation, a Maoist splinter group, which boycotted the November election said it would hold a sit-in protest outside the assembly.

"Our protest will be peaceful. But if the government tries to break it, it will have to take the responsibility for the violence that might follow," Dev Gurung, a leader of the faction, said.

Nepal's political woes have hampered efforts to fire up growth in a nation which borders both India and China and is one of the poorest in Asia.

Annual GDP growth slid to 4.6 per cent last year while inflation is hovering around 10 per cent, forcing hundreds of thousands of Nepalis to migrate overseas for jobs.

Analysts say all the main parties know they cannot afford to allow their disagreements over the terms of the constitution to go on much longer.

"The parties will have to work things out, they have no other option, no other way out," Lok Raj Baral, executive chairman of Kathmandu's Nepal Centre for Contemporary Studies, said.

The main differences between the parties on the constitution revolve around state boundaries and the powers of the president.

Efforts to agree on a new coalition have also snagged over disagreements about the carve-up of key posts and ministries.

Nepalese newspapers urged the parties to strive to overcome their differences and live up to campaign promises to draw up a draft of the new constitution within a year of parliament convening.

The best-selling Kantipur Daily said it was time for Nepalese politicians to "prove... that they have learned lessons from past failures".

Baral said none of the disagreements should be so serious as to trigger another drawn - out impasse.

"This sort of squabbling is to be expected, it should not be taken too seriously," he said. "Of course, it will create unnecessary delays but the politicians know they need to settle down and get to work soon."

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