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A Not-So-Firm Deadline on a New Government in Nepal

By GARDINER HARRIS, NEW DELHI (NY Times): President Ram Baran Yadav of Nepal is insisting that the country’s politicians reach an agreement on a new government by Thursday afternoon.
Unless, of course, the politicians need more time. Again. Then, well, all bets are off.

“If the time is not enough to get to some sort of conclusion, most probably the president will have to extend the deadline some more days,” Rajendra Dahal, the president’s spokesman, said about the deadline that the president announced last week. “Maybe four or five days.”

And if four or five days are not enough?

“At the moment, I can only say that the process may continue for more weeks or more months,” Mr. Dahal said.

Nepal’s transition to democracy has already taken nearly five years, paralyzed by the ethnic, caste, religious, ideological and regional differences that permeate Nepalese society and have apparently made even the most basic political agreements impossible.

The move toward a representative government began in 2008 with great promise after the election of a Constituent Assembly. As numerous deadlines came and went, the assembly was unable to draw up a constitution or settle on the timing or method for holding further elections. But it did manage to agree on a Maoist prime minister, Baburam Bhattarai, and a cabinet.

Since then, however, the terms of those elected in 2008 have expired, and the president has repeatedly pleaded for the assembly to reach a consensus on other important matters. In the meantime, basic civic functions are grinding to a halt.

Nepal has more than 35 major political groups, and internecine battles are common. The Communists are split into Marxists and Maoists, and the Maoists are further splintered into accommodationists and hard-liners. Cultural differences within Nepal, a country of 29 million, are vast. Nepali is the official language, but there are a dozen other major languages and scores of dialects. The average income is about $3 per day, and unemployment is above 40 percent.

The best that can be said about the present logjam is that nobody is shooting at each other. That may not sound like much, but most international observers view the current situation as a huge improvement over much of Nepal’s modern history. A 10-year civil war that ended in 2006 cost at least 13,000 lives and left the country bereft.

Some weeks ago, rumors swept Katmandu, the capital, that an exasperated Mr. Yadav would fire Mr. Bhattarai and appoint a judge or an elder statesman in his place so elections could finally be held.

But there were many problems with this notion. Nepal’s presidency is a largely ceremonial post, and Mr. Yadav had no power to take such a step. Also, the two most important players in Nepalese politics, the Nepalese Army and the Indian government, were said to have rejected the plan. At any rate, previous attempts by exasperated politicians to impose order on feuding political clans had generally ended badly.

So Mr. Dahal now insists that the president’s patience is nearly limitless.

“The president does not have other options or plans,” he said.

Some analysts believe that the recent speculation about drastic action has pushed the political parties closer to an agreement.

“I think there is a slight window of opportunity right now that they may be able to form a consensus government,” said Sridhar K. Khatri, a former executive director of the South Asia Center for Policy Studies.

Anagha Neelakantan, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group, said some sort of resolution was possible because the paralysis carried its own risks for the major political parties, including a rise in royalist sentiments. The king surrendered power in 2006 after a disastrous crackdown led most of the country’s major parties to work together to oust him.

“If the parties don’t behave themselves, in six months a royalist resurgence is a real possibility,” Ms. Neelakantan said.

Meanwhile, Thursday’s deadline awaits. Will there be a consensus by then?

“No,” said Devendra Poudel, a spokesman for Mr. Bhattarai. “There will not be.”

(Prateek Pradhan contributed reporting from Katmandu, Nepal.)

Published Date: Wednesday, November 28th, 2012 | 01:34 PM

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