Political squabbles are likely to delay until next year Nepal's first national election since the abolition of the monarchy, dealing a major blow to hopes for stability in the Himalayan republic as it recovers from years of civil war.
Maoist Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai had called for elections to be held on Nov. 22 after a special assembly missed its deadline to draft a new constitution. But opposition parties have rejected the date as impractical and called for Bhattarai to resign. He has so far refused.
Nepal's Election Commission has given the government until Sunday to initiate certain legislative steps, including updating the voters list, to ensure the elections can be held on time. But the government cannot act without consensus among political parties, so it appears almost certain to miss that deadline.
The commission needs 120 days to prepare for the polls, and any further delay would mean pushing the election too deep into winter, when snow makes polling stations inaccessible to voters in the mountains.
"We have informed the government about the need for the legislation to be in place by this Sunday, otherwise the Nov. 22 polls are not possible," an Election Commission spokesman said on Tuesday.
Postponing the election until next year could trigger more of the street protests and violence that have blighted one of the world's poorest countries since the end of a civil war in 2006 that killed 16,000 people.
"The only certainty is that the things will be uncertain for a while longer," said Kunda Dixit, editor of the Nepali Times weekly and a respected political commentator.
"Political parties would seek to settle their scores on the streets and that could invite confrontation," he said.
Opposition parties have vowed to launch street protests to force Bhattarai from office. If the polls are postponed, the next window for a national vote is March or April next year.
Wedged between India and China, Nepal has seen four government changes since elections were last held in 2008.
International donors, who provide a big chunk of money for economic development, fret that the latest wrangling will push key development issues into the background.
"Uncertainty and the absence of parliament for a long time mean delay in pushing through key reform agenda in areas like energy, health, education, disaster management and civil service," said a Western diplomat. "And we don't know for how long this will continue. That is our big concern."
The Maoists, who waged a decade-long armed conflict against the now toppled monarchy, joined the mainstream under a 2006 peace deal and emerged the biggest political party in elections held two years later.
The 239-year-old monarchy was subsequently abolished.