KATMANDU, Nepal – Nepal's Parliament reconvened Friday for the first time in four years, after weeks of often-bloody protests forced the king to give up absolute power and return the Himalayan country to democratic rule.
It was not immediately clear if Girija Prasad Koirala, the ailing 84-year-old veteran politician, was present. Koirala was to have been sworn in Friday morning, but an unspecified lung problem had forced the ceremony to be rescheduled, his aides said.
Outside, thousands of political activists jammed the streets in front of the parliament building, demanding incoming legislators quickly make good on promises to have the constitution rewritten.
Thousands more people marched through the city's streets in the hours ahead of the parliamentary gathering.
"We expect Parliament will make a decision today about the constitutional assembly," said Bamdev Gautam of the United Democratic Front, a pro-democracy group rallying in a park about a mile from Parliament as Maoists and supporters milled about. "If they do not we will call the people to rally, and to make more peaceful struggles."
At the rally in the heart of the capital, red banners adorned with the communist hammer and sickle fluttered as a small group of Maoist rebels and supporters gathered. Thousands came to the rally.
In a Maoist statement distributed in the crowd, the insurgent leader Prachanda praised the protests that led to King Gyanendra handing over power to elected politicians.
"This revolution is an appeal to the people all over the world to ... defeat autocracy," the statement said.
The gathering was a sign that the rebels — hunted by previous governments — believe they will be given a chance to play a public role after backing protests that forced Gyanendra to restore democracy.
"I don't support the Maoists, but I came here to hear what they have to say," said T.N. Paudel, a civil servant.
The weeks of bloody protests were organized by an alliance of seven political parties that chose Koirala, a veteran politician, to head the new government — his fifth turn at the top job.
He was formally named premier Thursday, but his illness forced officials to push back his swearing-in from early Friday to later in the day, said the premier's spokesman, Gokarna Poudyal.
The reinstated Parliament got a bit of breathing space when the Maoists announced a three-month cease-fire on Thursday.
Even without an immediate rebel threat, the task ahead is enormous for legislators essentially returned to power by hundreds of thousands of Nepalis who took part in nearly three weeks of protests against Gyanendra's royal dictatorship — and now demand real change in this near-feudal land where most eke out pitiful livings as landless farmers.
Many of Nepal's 27 million people remain distrustful of the political elite they backed in the demonstrations, well aware of the infighting and corruption that marked Nepal's last crack at democracy, which began after similar unrest in 1990 and ended with Gyanendra seizure of power last year.
The top priority for the lawmakers — who last sat in 2002 before Gyanendra dismissed the parliament at the request of the then-prime minister — is readying Nepal to hold elections for a special assembly to rewrite the constitution.
The current charter gives the king broad powers to dismiss governments along with supreme command of the army.
The expectation on the streets — and the key demand of the Maoists, who remain well-armed — is a new charter that will limit or eliminate the monarchy's role, ensuring that Gyanendra can never seize power as he did in February 2005.
At the time, he said he needed authority to restore political order and crush the Maoists.
Those constitutional provisions will be the top goal of any special assembly, but experts says it's not clear if a new charter can legally remove the king from his role as the supreme arbiter of power in Nepal, or as the top commander of the military.
Any moves against the king's power are sure to face challengers in courts packed with royal appointees.