Nepal parliament votes to amend new constitution

Kathmandu (AFP) - Nepal's parliament voted on Saturday to amend the country's new constitution in a bid to resolve a months-long dispute with ethnic minority protesters demanding more political representation.

"I announce that the Nepal constitution first amendment bill has been passed with a two-thirds majority in favour," said speaker Onsari Gharti Magar as lawmakers thumped their desks in agreement.

More than 50 people have been killed in clashes between police and people protesting against the constitution introduced in September, which demonstrators said left them politically marginalised.

Demonstrators from the Madhesi ethnic minority, mainly from Nepal's southern plains, have blocked a key border crossing with India for four months, causing a crippling shortage of fuel and other vital supplies across the landlocked Himalayan nation.

In an effort to end the deadlock, parties last month tabled a bill to amend the constitution and increase the Madhesi presence in government bodies through proportional representation.

But Madhesis say the bill is incomplete and does not address their main demand to revise the federal state borders laid out in the charter that they fear will limit their representation in parliament.

Madhesi lawmakers walked out of parliament in protest before the bill was passed late Saturday with 461 votes in favour of the amendments.

Seven voted against it, and the remaining 128 MPs were either not present or part of the walkout.

"We are the protesters, our objections should been included in this (bill). But no one sought advice from us," said Sarbendra Nath Shukla of the Tarai Madhes Democratic Party.

"The amendments do not address our demands," Shukla told lawmakers before the walkout.

The new bill promises Madhesis, as well as members of other marginalised or impoverished communities, higher representation in government bodies on the basis of proportional inclusion.

It also potentially enhances their electoral representation by making population the main criteria for drawing up constituencies -- a move which will likely generate more seats for lawmakers in the densely-populated southern plains that are home to most Madhesis.

But protesting parties say the amendments are insufficient since they don't include a commitment to revise internal federal borders.

The constitution, the first drawn up by elected representatives, was meant to cement peace and bolster Nepal's transformation to a democratic republic after decades of political instability and a 10-year Maoist insurgency.

But several rounds of talks between the government and the protesting parties have failed to reach an agreement.

The unrest has triggered concern in neighbouring India, with New Delhi criticising the charter and urging Nepal to hold talks with the Madhesis, who share close cultural, linguistic and family links with Indians living across the border.

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