KATHMANDU (Reuters) - A key ally of Nepal’s ruling Maoists withdrew support on Sunday, leaving the coalition unstable after differences over the sacking of the country’s army chief earlier in the day.
The Maoists fired Rookmangud Katawal, accusing him of disobeying instructions not to hire new recruits and refusing to accept the supremacy of the civilian government over the army.
The move has angered government allies, and the second biggest grouping in the coalition, the Communist UML party, said it was walking out. A smaller partner, the Sadbhavana Party, said it was pulling out too.
“The party has decided to leave the coalition and withdraw support to the Maoists,” Ishwar Pokharel, general secretary of the UML party, told reporters. “The Maoists have failed to lead the government with our confidence.”
The UML’s withdrawal leaves the Maoists with a slender majority in a 601-member parliament. The Maoists have 238 seats and are still supported by some small parties. The UML party has 108 members and the Sadbhavana Party has three.
The developments have plunged the impoverished Himalayan nation into crisis and should any more allies quit, it would leave the Maoist-led government in a minority and force a parliamentary vote.
Katawal too seemed bracing for a fight. He refused to accept his dismissal and was meeting other generals in his office, an army official said.
Nepal does not have a history of military coups, but the move could wreck a 2006 peace pact which ended a decade-long civil war that pitted the army against the Maoists.
A meeting of all political parties — excluding the Maoists but including their allies in the coalition — was scheduled for later on Sunday, opposition officials said.
Party officials and political analysts said more allies could desert the Maoists.
Hundreds of activists of the opposition Nepali Congress party burned tires on the streets of the capital Kathmandu in protest against the decision. Rival Maoist supporters also rallied but there was no violence.
The Nepali Congress said the Maoists were trying to impose “totalitarian” rule by bringing the army under their control. The government allies say they are angry because the decision to sack Katawal was made without consulting them.
The Maoists say the move against Katawal was to establish “civilian supremacy” over the army, which was once seen as loyal to the now deposed monarchy.
The former rebels emerged as the single largest party in a constituent assembly election last year that is tasked with running Nepal until a new constitution is written by May 2010.
Abolition of Nepal’s 239-year-old monarchy and a new constitution were the key demands in the Maoists’ peace negotiations.
“At this rate it is unlikely that the new constitution will be written on time,” Kunda Dixit, editor of the Nepali Times weekly, told Reuters.
The Maoists came to power in the face of great public expectations, but soon found themselves struggling with daily power outages, high inflation and massive fuel shortages in one of the world’s poorest countries.
Ties between the Maoists and the army have been fraught since the former rebels took over.
Katawal was due to retire in four months. The Maoists accuse him of hiring 2,800 new recruits and reinstating eight generals without consulting the government.
The Maoists and the army have also faced off on the question of absorbing more than 19,000 former rebel fighters into the armed forces. Katawal had resisted, saying the army could not take in “indoctrinated” cadres.
The rehabilitation of the former fighters is seen as key to lasting peace in the country.
The government said the cabinet had appointed General Kul Bahadur Khadka, next in line after Katawal, as acting chief of the 93,000-strong army.
Though the political uncertainty could mean prolonged streets protests, analysts said there was little chance of the Maoists returning to the jungles. Their fighters are now housed in U.N.-monitored camps under the 2006 peace pact.
Writing by Krittivas Mukherjee