KATMANDU, Nepal – Nepal's chief judge was named head of an interim government Thursday in an attempt by the Himalayan country's main political parties to cure the paralysis and infighting that have blocked elections for months.
Supreme Court Chief Justice Khilraj Regmi was sworn in by President Ram Baran Yadav. He nominated former bureaucrats Madhav Ghimire as home minister and Hari Prasad Neupane as law minister, who took the oath of office with him.
An agreement signed late Wednesday night by leaders of Nepal's four main political parties says Regmi will have an 11-member Cabinet and the interim government will hold elections by June 21.
Smaller parties oppose the move. Protesters vandalized government vehicles Thursday and shut down the country for hours.
Regmi will set aside his court duties but will return as chief justice when his tenure leading the government ends. His title is chairman of the interim election government.
"The priority and the main task of this government is to hold elections and I am determined to fulfill that," Regmi said.
Nepal's last parliament was elected in 2008 and expired in May 2012, having failed in its mission to draft a new constitution. Baburam Bhattarai, of the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), had been head of a caretaker administration since then, but rival parties did not want him in office while elections for a new Constituent Assembly were held. The bickering caused the cancellation of elections that had been set for November 2012.
The assembly to be elected in June is to write a constitution and double as the country's parliament.
The United States welcomed the formation of the interim government, and commended the political parties for making the necessary compromise.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland called it an "important political milestone." She expressed hope for free and fair elections and that the parties would remain committed to a democratic Nepal.
Regmi, 63, had been free of controversy in his two years as chief justice, but the Nepal Bar Association and some smaller political parties have criticized the arrangement as inappropriately mixing law and politics.
The Supreme Court was supposed to hear a case against his appointment Thursday, but whether it would be heard after his swearing-in was not immediately known.
Supporters of smaller parties ordered a general strike Thursday, shutting down markets and forcing vehicles off the streets for hours. Protesters vandalized at least three government vehicles in the capital, Katmandu.
Maoist rebels in Nepal fought government troops between 1996 and 2006 until they gave up their armed revolt and joined a peace process that evolved after the country abolished its longstanding monarchy.
They emerged as the largest political party in the 2008 Constituent Assembly, but no party got a clear majority. Four different prime ministers assumed power in the next four years. Differences among the political parties have been blamed for the delays in the peace process and in the writing of a new constitution.
Associated Press writer Matthew Pennington in Washington contributed to this report.