On February 20, the government had announced that local elections would be held on May 14 at one go. Nepal was going to hold local elections for the first time in 20 years, and also in a different format. “As we were holding the first elections under a new local structure, there was some confusion about how to move ahead,” said Election Commissioner Ishwori Paudel. Moreover, the political situation, legal and administrative aspects were also not easy. First of all, the EC had less than three months to prepare for the voting, although it takes four months of preparation under normal circumstances. The EC had just 84 days to make the preparations compared to 100 days during the second Constitution Assembly (CA) election in 2013 and 109 days during the first CA election in 2008. Secondly, Madhes-based parties were demanding that the constitution be amended to change the border of the provinces before holding any election. Third, the EC had not received the report of the Local Level Restructuring Commission (LLRC) that had created the new structures of the local jurisdictions. Fourth, all the laws required to prepare for the elections were not ready.
The EC formally received the revised LLRC report only on March 10, just two months before the planned elections. It was prepared in line with the original report informally given to it. The Act on Political Parties, the final act required for holding the elections, came into effect only on April 9. The LLRC report and laws were required for preparing the voter roll and voter identity cards besides conducting voter education, among other tasks. “But we had to work on these matters in haste due to delays in getting these documents,” said Paudel.
Amid warnings of obstruction by Madhes-based parties, particularly from Rastriya Janata Party-Nepal (RJP-N), a merged entity of six Madhes-centric parties, the Cabinet on April 23 decided to hold local elections in two phases with the second phase scheduled for June 14. The first phase of elections was held in Provinces 3, 4 and 6 on May 14 peacefully without any obstructions. On May 29, the Cabinet postponed the second phase of local elections to June 23 and another Cabinet meeting on May 31 postponed the voting further to June 28. On June 15, the government rescheduled local elections in Province 2 for September 18.
According to EC officials, these frequent changes in election date affected their preparations. The EC also faced criticism for bowing to the government’s will instead of resisting its attempts to frequently change the date as per its will. However, CEC Yadav said that the EC became flexible to enable the government to create a conductive political environment so that all the political forces could participate in the elections. This flexible approach, according to EC commissioners, was crucial in accommodating forces who were initially against the elections. The RJP-N, which didn’t participate in the first and second phases of the local elections, eventually participated in the elections held in Province 2.
On August 24, the Constitution Amendment Bill supported by the government and Madhesi parties failed in Parliament. But the government’s decision to add nine local units in Province 2 in line with a Supreme Court order helped to convince the RJP-N to participate in the elections in Province 2. According to the EC, the third phase of the local polls were the most peaceful.
Two other elections
Initially, the EC had planned to hold the House of Representatives and Provincial Assembly elections on different dates, holding the provincial elections first. However, as holding elections on different dates would take much time, it agreed to hold the two polls on the same day. On August 21, the government announced that the two elections would be held on the same day on November 26 against the EC’s suggestion to hold the two elections in two phases. Subsequently, the government again decided to hold the elections in two phases on November 26 and December 7.
The EC was relatively at ease while holding these elections compared to the time when the local elections were held because the agitating parties from Madhes had decided to participate in the voting. However, after the CPN (Maoist Centre), a party in the ruling alliance, joined hands with the CPN-UML to form a broad electoral alliance of left parties, concerns were raised whether the elections would be held.
On October 3, these two leftist parties and Naya Shakti Party announced their electoral alliance which many thought could encourage Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba to postpone elections fearing electoral losses. However, EC officials said that Prime Minister Deuba never talked about postponing the elections. Even then, fearing a possible impact on the electoral results, the government withdrew the Bill on Elections for the National Assembly from Parliament following the formation of the Left Alliance. As per the bill, National Assembly elections would be held under the First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) system. The government later sent an ordinance with the provision of proportional representation system where a single transferable system has been proposed.
EC officials said that if the parties had passed these bills in time, the current row over the National Assembly elections would not have arisen. On the other hand, the EC faced security challenges they had not imagined while holding the first two elections. “While political challenges were bigger for the local elections, security emerged as the biggest challenge for holding the two other elections after candidates and their campaigns were targeted with bomb attacks,” said CEC Yadav.
Another challenge the EC faced was the Supreme Court’s order on October 25 telling it to prepare separate ballot papers for the elections to the House of Representatives and the State Assemblies under the FPTP system. The court’s order came at a time when the EC was just about to start printing two ballots on a single sheet of paper. “Thanks to political polarisation leading to electoral alliances, fewer election symbols needed to be included on the ballot papers, and they could be of smaller sizes, allowing us to print more of them at a time,” said Yadav.
But the EC had to postpone its voter education programme for a week, and almost all its voter education materials were wasted following the court order. “Voter education materials worth around Rs9 billion were wasted,” said Election Commissioner Narendra Dahal. “We could not reprint all the voter education materials for the November 26 election.” Inadequate voter education was reflected in the high number of invalid votes, particularly under the proportional representation system. As many as 14.74 percent of the State Assembly votes under the proportional representation system were void, according to the EC.
EC under the scanner
Despite holding three elections successfully, the EC faced criticism due to perceived bias in some cases. The decision to hold a re-poll in Ward 19 in Bharatpur Metropolitan City, after Maoist Centre cadres tore up about 100 ballot papers while they were being counted at the counting centre, invited strong protests from the UML leading to a court case. Its decision to seek re-confirmation of the signatures of lawmakers and central committee members, which made things complicated for the Rastriya Prajatantra Party (Prajatantrik) to register with the EC, also led to controversy. Delays in disqualifying Shiva Pujan Yadav, Maoist Centre candidate from Sarlahi-4 who had been convicted by the Special Court for misusing his diplomatic passport, also raised questions over the EC’s integrity.
Efforts to bring high-end cars for election commissioners and alleged efforts to purchase electronic voting machines (EVM) without competitive bidding, also invited controversy. CEC Yadav didn’t want to talk about these controversies. However, former CEC Upreti said that although the EC should be praised for holding the elections successfully, its weakness in bringing uniformity in its decision making should not be overlooked. The EC also faced criticism for weak enforcement of the election code of conduct and ‘poor’ voter education, which resulted in a high number of invalid votes totalling 12.55 percent of the votes cast in the local elections.Published: 2017-12-31 13:34:33