Fighting broke out in Nepal's parliament Tuesday, with Maoist lawmakers throwing chairs and injuring four security officers as tensions ran high before a deadline to approve a post-war constitution.
Hours after parliament descended into chaos, police arrested 50 protesters who set fire to buses and taxis to try to enforce a nationwide strike called by the Maoists in protest at moves to finalise the charter.
The opposition Maoist party is trying to prevent the ruling coalition from pushing proposals through parliament without agreement before Thursday's deadline. The Maoists say discussions should continue until final agreement is reached - even if that means missing the deadline to approve and publish the constitution.
Tuesday's strike shut down factories, shops, schools and public transport in the Himalayan nation, which has endured prolonged political limbo since 2006 when the Maoists ended their decade-long insurgency.
The usually gridlocked streets of Kathmandu remained clear during morning rush hour as many people heeded the Maoist call to stay home in the capital, where authorities had deployed 6,000 police. Despite extensive discussions, lawmakers have failed to agree on a charter and are widely expected to miss Thursday's cut-off, further deepening disillusionment with the political process in the young republic.
Disagreements persist on crucial issues, with the opposition calling for new provinces to be created along lines that could favour historically marginalised communities such as the "untouchable" Dalit caste and the Madhesi ethnic minority. Other parties say such a move would be divisive and a threat to national unity.
'Bunch of wild animals'
With just two days left to draft the charter, the Constituent Assembly met late into the night. But Speaker Subash Nembang was forced to halt the debate after Maoist and Madhesi lawmakers scuffled with ruling party politicians.
A lawmaker with the ruling Unified Marxist-Leninist (UML) party, Rajan Bhattarai, said two fellow MPs had been struck by flying microphones and blamed the Maoists for the violence. The speaker had to adjourn a second meeting on Tuesday afternoon, as opposition lawmakers screamed slogans and paralysed proceedings.
Graduate student Shiva Shrestha told AFP the constitution was "beginning to feel like a fairy tale", reflecting the frustration felt by many Nepalis. "Who behaves like a bunch of wild animals while trying to complete a constitution?" he said.
The ruling parties and their allies have the two-thirds majority in parliament that they need to approve a constitution without Maoist support. But the former rebels have warned of further conflict if the parties fail to take opposition views into account.
Former Maoist premier Baburam Bhattarai told cheering supporters in Kathmandu that his party was prepared for a long fight to ensure "a progressive constitution".
"Weren't (these parties) the forces we fought against? They didn't need a constituent assembly, they didn't need a republic... they didn't need federalism or secularism or an inclusive democracy," he said.
"We fought 10 years for it... we will never give up," he said. Tuesday's shutdown saw several people injured in two districts when angry shopkeepers defied the strike order, local police said. In the southern district of Saptari, arsonists torched UML offices and destroyed files and furniture.
UML lawmaker Bhim Rawal told AFP an investigation was underway but said it appeared to be the work of people involved in the strike. Akhilesh Upadhyay, editor-in-chief of The Kathmandu Post, told AFP a unilateral move towards a vote would result in "a constitution that has no credibility".
Furthermore, it would likely alienate already marginalised communities across the country, from the Madhesis in the southern plains to the Limbu minority in the east, Upadhyay said.
"A constitution at any cost, accompanied by a serious risk of unrest, would be a pyrrhic victory for Nepal," he said. Nepal has had two elections and six prime ministers since 2008, when parliament voted to abolish a 240-year-old monarchy and usher in a secular republic. But its warring political parties have failed to make headway on many disputed issues and conclude the peace process.
The political instability has deterred investment and annual growth has plunged from 6.1 per cent in 2008 to 3.6 per cent in 2013, according to World Bank data.
There are also growing signs of popular unrest. Last week police arrested more than 70 protesters for attacking vehicles or coercing shopkeepers to close their stores during a Maoist-led strike in Kathmandu.