Trouble in Nepali Paradise

NEW DELHI – Away from the glare of global headlines, Nepal is grappling with a constitutional crisis that could once again propel the tourist mecca, sensitively situated between India and China, into full-fledged conflict.

From 1996 to 2006, Nepal was wracked by a brutal civil war that pitted a Maoist insurgency against the long-ruling monarchy, whose powerful army initially enjoyed the support of the country's democratic political parties. Peace (brokered by India, with active United Nations support) came only after the Maoists and the democrats agreed in 2005 to establish a Constituent Assembly. The first election was held in 2008, two years after a “people's movement" forced King Gyanendra to abdicate.

In that election, the Maoists emerged as the largest party, winning 240 of the 601 seats. Then came long-established forces like the Nepali Congress, a social-democratic party modeled on its Indian namesake, and the moderate Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist), which, despite its name, is committed to electoral politics within a democratic system. And new mobilized parties of Nepal's southern plains, representing the Madhesi people, won 80 seats on a platform of greater federalism, ensuring that no single party or grouping could dominate the assembly.

But this balance devolved into paralysis, as the parties consistently failed to overcome their differences to make progress toward a constitution. The deadlock spilled over into the country's politics, with shifting coalitions forming four successive governments that collapsed within months, each time in a welter of recrimination from the parties that had been excluded.