KATHMANDU - Nepal's rival political parties have struck a historic agreement to end years of deadlock on a new constitution that will divide the country into eight provinces, spurred by a devastating earthquake.
The deal reached late Monday comes weeks after an earthquake that killed thousands and piled pressure on politicians to end a stalemate that has paralysed the country.
Nepal's lawmakers began work on a new national constitution in 2008 following a decade-long Maoist insurgency that left an estimated 16,000 people dead and brought down the monarchy.
But the political parties were unable to reach agreement and the resulting uncertainty left Nepal - one of the world's poorest countries - in a state of political limbo.
Information Minister Minendra Rijal said the April 25 disaster, which killed more than 8,700 people and destroyed nearly half a million houses, had motivated rival parties to work together.
"There is a will to get this done," said Rijal, calling the agreement a "major breakthrough".
The opposition Maoist party had pressed for greater devolution of powers, and the agreement to divide Nepal into eight provinces paves the way for a new federal structure.
However, it leaves the crucial issue of the provincial borders unresolved - an omission which critics said would create future problems.
The Maoists had been pushing for new provinces to be created along lines that could favour historically marginalised communities, but other parties said this would be divisive and a threat to national unity.
"This is an incomplete deal, it's an agreement which postpones the crucial question entirely," said Prashant Jha, a Nepali journalist and author.
"Political parties have abdicated their responsibility by not hammering out a deal on internal borders.
"The constitution that emerges will be a deeply divisive and contested document from day one," he said.
Under the deal, Nepal will continue with its current system of national governance which includes an executive prime minister and ceremonial president.
A new federal commission will be tasked with drawing up internal borders and submit a proposal for approval in parliament.
The agreement includes a commitment to hold the country's first local elections since 1997.
Many say the absence of village representatives has hampered the distribution of aid following the quake.
But victims of the disaster were unimpressed by the political breakthrough.
"I'd rather have rehabilitation and relief than new provinces," said Eakindra Gautam, a 57-year-old villager who fled to Kathmandu after her home was destroyed.
"The number of provinces makes no difference to my devastated life or my destroyed village," Gautam told AFP as she sheltered under a tent.
Lawmakers said a draft of the final constitution, which must be approved by a two-thirds parliamentary majority, would be ready in July.
Work on the charter - intended to conclude a peace process begun in 2006 when the Maoists entered politics - began after a 2008 election won by the former rebels.
But political infighting confounded efforts to hammer out a deal, throwing parliament into disarray and crippling the economy.
Newspaper editor Guna Raj Luitel said the April 25 earthquake appeared to have added impetus to the process.
"Everyone was fed up with the parties, people thought the constitution will never come because they couldn't agree on anything," said Luitel, editor-in-chief of the Nagarik daily.
"After the first quake, things changed. Parties seem to have realised that they need to work together to rebuild the country."