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Local polls can be held in May-June if there is political will

- Ekantipur Report
Local polls can be held in May-June if there is political will

Mar 17, 2014-

The last local elections were held in 1997 and after the five-year term of the representatives expired, village, district and municipal bodies across the country have been running without elected officials. Last year, the four main political forces—the Nepali Congress (NC), CPN-UML, UCPN (Maoist) and Madhesi parties—expressed their commitment to hold local elections in Spring 2014. Post Constituent Assembly (CA) election last November, the NC and UML are still pushing for local elections while the Maoist and Madhesis are in favour of postponing polls to after the promulgation of a new constitution. Meanwhile, the Election Commission (EC) has been hard at work preparing for polls. Bhadra Sharma and Darshan Karki spoke to the Chief Election Commissioner Neel Kantha Uprety about the need for polls, whether it could distract CA members from constitution writing and lessons learnt from the November elections.

How are preparations going for local elections?

The Interim Constitution mentions that the EC will conduct three elections. First, an election to a CA, which has been held twice. Second, local elections; and if necessary, a referendum. But the date for local polls has not been fixed yet nor has the ‘how’ to conduct the elections been decided. Since the framework is laid out by the law, the current Local Body (Election Procedures) Act 1992 needs to be amended and updated. The EC is currently waiting for the laws to be changed and the government to send us in writing the date to hold elections.  

What needs to be amended in the law?

As local elections are being held after a long gap of about 17 to 18 years, ensuring inclusion and proportional representation among local representatives is of key importance. It is important to decide the percentage of women’s representation in local councils, district committees, wards and municipalities. There are also some contradictions between the Procedures Act and the Local Self-Governance Act 1999 regarding the qualifications of local representatives. The Election Procedures Act states that people who have been convicted of a crime but completed their sentence can take part in the elections after six years while the Governance Act qualifies people to be candidates three years after the end of their sentence.  

The Nepali Congress is seeking to change a provision in which, it argues, the  Chief District Officer (CDO) is assigned the responsibility of local chief election officer.

This is traditional practice, not a provision in the Act. The provision states that the EC will assign the election officer but it does not specify that it has to be the CDO. In the 1997 local-level elections, the EC assigned the CDO as chief election officer. Now we have election offices and election officers in all 75 districts so the EC can nominate any officer at the district level as chief election officer.

Can you explain the process of holding a local-level election?

According to existing law, we need to conduct elections in three phases. The EC wants to do away with this provision as it might take more or less phases to conduct the elections. It is a complicated procedure wherein voters will elect around 256,000 people. The law also mentions national parties, which were then only four in number. The rest would file an application to take part in the elections independently. Currently, there are 130 registered parties, of which 122 took part in the November elections and 30 are currently represented in the CA. So even if only 30 parties take part in the elections, the size of the ballot paper will be very big. Also, there will definitely be independent candidates. In November, we had prepared 241 different kinds of ballot papers. In the local elections, each ward will need a different ballot paper. There are around 3,915 VDCs and each VDC has nine wards. There are also municipalities to account for. So this is a complicated election to hold.

In the November election, the issue of threshold became highly controversial. Will it be implemented this time?

Local elections are held under first-past-the-post-system. A threshold can only be easily applied to a proportional election system. However, a threshold can be introduced in defining national parties based on the number of seats they obtained in the November elections. This would make it easier to manage the elections. But it is up to the political parties to decide.

The last local-level election was accused of not being inclusive. How does the  EC plan to ensure representation of different ethnic groups?

As far as local elections are concerned, I feel that there is a need to ensure proportional representation of two groups: men and women. There already exists a provision in the law to nominate people from marginalised groups.

How do you plan to ensure women’s representation?

The EC is for 50 percent representation of both sexes. In the 1997 local elections, there was a one-seat quota for women as a member of the Ward Committee. This must be increased. Given the level of women empowerment over the years, we have seen that women can easily take up leadership positions. And I don’t think there will be a shortage of women candidates either. But this too should be decided by the political parties.

Can elections be held in May/June?

The voters, candidates and number of officers required to conduct the elections are all at the local level. The EC needs one month to update the voters’ list and the ballot papers can be printed in different stages for the polls. The elections itself can be completed within a month and a half. But time is passing and if things remain the same, it will be difficult to hold polls soon. Yet, a lot can be accomplished in a week if there is political will. First, the government should fix a date for the election in consensus with different political parties. Then there are amendments to existing laws. One way to do this is by formulating a new law altogether, though this take a long time. The other option is to amend selected acts related to local elections. This can be done through Some Nepal Laws Amendment Act.

Some parties are arguing that holding local elections will hinder constitution writing.

 

Polls will be held in voting stations across the country, not in the CA. The district level, area level and village level leaders of different parties are already there. If the presence of central-level leaders and CA members were a must in villages, then it would have been plausible to argue that local level elections would be a distraction. But I do not see the need for anyone to be present apart from voters and local candidates. This, however, could be my simple-minded understanding. And if this is the incorrect way of seeing things, it would be nice if the political parties explained the situation in clear terms to everyone, including the people.

If polls are not held in May/June, when can they be held next?

The Interim Constitution clearly states that the Government of Nepal will fix the date for elections. Had it said the EC can fix the date for elections and conduct periodic elections, things would have been different. If political parties had shown that much trust in this institution, two local elections would have already been held and we would be preparing for the third one. Even if elections cannot be held immediately, announcing the date will help make voters aware and enthusiastic about polls.

There is also the worry that elections will harm the cause of federalism and distort the debate.

From a technical point of view, it has already been decided that the country will be federated. However, states cannot be carved out on paper. Areas need to be delineated and boundaries need to be fixed. And perhaps this will need consensus among people of different districts and villages as to where the rivers and roads lie. This process could give rise to controversies. In that case, will the Prime Minister go to sort out the territories? Or will the local leaders resolve the disputes? Will it be easier when locally-elected bodies are in place or if the central government decides this? Those who want to strengthen a centralised form of governance do not want elections at the VDC level.

What lessons did the EC learn while holding the November elections? What challenges did it face and are they relevant for local elections?

In other countries, elections are held within weeks of announcing the election date. This is because they have everything ready. Agencies that hold elections need not go to Japan in search of ballot boxes, to China for other materials and to Europe for money. If it was the same for us, we could hold elections immediately too. Our time gets wasted collecting and updating materials. So even a two-three month period is a very short time for us. To change this, preparations for elections should continue in a cyclic pattern and when dates are fixed, polls can be held instantly. In November, the EC distributed the voters’ ids in a hurry and some people who had registered were left out. The ballot box was also of low quality. We took whatever was given. Election supplies are sensitive and it would be nice if the EC could use materials made in Nepal.

There were also problems while transporting election materials. Helicopters and trucks were used but because it was not done systematically, various materials were destroyed. In some places, officers could not accompany the election materials. In the local elections, however, election materials only need to be taken to the polling stations. They need not be transported back. Elections are held, votes counted and results are published, all at the local level.

Published: 17-03-2014 09:05

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