KATMANDU, Nepal – Nepal sank into political turmoil Monday after lawmakers failed to agree on a new constitution, leaving the country with no legal government. The premier called new elections, but critics said he lacked the power to do so.
Security forces went on high alert, although Katmandu was largely quiet due to a national holiday. Riot police patrolled the streets after several political parties called for rallies to demand the resignation of Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai and protest his unilateral decision to call elections for November.
"The country has plunged into a serious crisis," said Ram Sharan Mahat, a senior leader of the country's second-largest party, the Nepali Congress, who said that six months would not be enough time to prepare for new polling.
"This government has no legitimate grounds to continue," he said.
The squabbling political parties in Nepal's Constituent Assembly had failed to agree on a new blueprint for the Himalayan nation by their own deadline of midnight Sunday, despite repeated extensions of the due date over the past four years.
A key sticking point was whether the country's states should be drawn to give regional power bases to ethnic minorities.
Writing the new constitution was supposed to cap an interim period aimed at solidifying details of Nepal's democracy after the country turned the page on centuries of royal rule and resolved a decade-long Maoist insurgency by bringing the former combatants into the political mainstream.
Bhattarai, from the party of former Maoists, said the previous constitutional assembly, elected four years ago, had failed and must be dissolved, and that he would head a caretaker government until the Nov. 22 elections.
"We have no other option but to go back to the people and elect a new assembly to write the constitution," Bhattarai said in his announcement.
However, his plan immediately drew criticism from legal experts, who said any plans for new polling should be made in consultation with the country's other political parties.
"It was politically, legally and morally incorrect of the prime minister to announce fresh election," said constitutional and legal expert Bhimarjun Acharya.
Police spokesman Binod Singh said thousands of police officers have been deployed in Katmandu and major cities across the country to stop any violence in coming days.
Police had clashed briefly with protesters Sunday outside the Constituent Assembly, where political leaders from the country's four main parties had been meeting in a last-minute attempt to agree on a new constitution before the deadline.
Much of the debate was over whether to draw state boundaries in a way to boost the political power of the country's ethnic minorities.
Nepal's minority ethnic groups and low-caste communities were overshadowed for centuries by the country's elite. In the past couple years, as Nepal has struggled to create a new government, those divisions have given rise to caste- and ethnic-based politicians, who insist their long-marginalized communities deserve to live in states that maximize their influence.
Thousands of protesters opposed to states drawn along ethnic and caste lines tried to push through a riot police blockade. Police pushed back and a scuffle ensued, with protesters throwing stones and police responding with tear gas and batons. Three policemen and several protesters were injured.
On the other side of the assembly hall, thousands of people demonstrated in support of states based on ethnicity. A thick police line kept the opposing groups apart.
The Constituent Assembly was elected to a two-year term in 2008 to draft a new constitution but has been unable to finish the task. Its tenure has been extended four times, but the Supreme Court rejected any further extensions.
The assembly's formation came two years after pro-democracy protests forced Nepal's king to give up authoritarian rule and restore democracy in the country. One of the assembly's first decisions was to abolish the centuries-old monarchy and convert Nepal into a republic.
The political parties have been able to resolve some other thorny differences in the past, including the future of thousands of Maoist rebel fighters who were confined to camps after giving up their armed revolt in 2006. However, they have not been able to agree on the ethnic issue.