Oped

Not over yet

  • Election Commission can do a better job during the second phase of local elections
- Khagendra N Sharma

May 21, 2017-

That the first phase of the local elections has been held is a great achievement. The government and the Election Commission (EC) deserve to be complimented on this feat; they have overcome several hurdles along the way. The Madhesi agitation was the main hurdle and it still remains a stumbling block for conducting the second phase of local elections. A change in government is imminent, which may delay the facilitation process of the second phase, if not aggravate it.

Tangible positive results

Every event has pros and cons. This piece is a humble assessment of the pros and cons of the first phase of the local elections. The first positive factor is that they have taken place, clearing the cloud of uncertainties. The uncertainties were home grown, although some external elements crept in. The main problem was the lack of a political will. While it cannot be claimed that the will has dawned fully upon the parties, conducting the local level elections is a temporary resurgence, as failure to hold three levels of elections by January 2018 could lead to a constitutional void. 

There was unbridgeable polarisation among the political forces. While the consensus to hold the local polls overcame it to some extent, the elections, in a way, have widened polarisation through a sense of electoral competition. 

The elections have given opportunities for the people to practise their democratic rights and for the parties to test their popularity and credibility. Another achievement is the actualisation of devolution of power: the local level will be practically established as new units. The so-called all party mechanism—which was a device to misuse the local level budget—will be replaced by elected representatives who will be locally accountable. Real local development can be planned and implemented now. And the local level will form the foundation of the federal pyramid. 

Issues to address

However, there are several procedural flaws that need to be avoided in the future. The Election Commission failed to pre-empt some problems. First of all, the ballot paper was confusing for many people. They had to make seven choices out of hundreds of election symbols. Some of the symbols were party based, but new parties were not allotted an election symbol. Personal allotment of symbols to the contestants from new parties was a big mistake. 

The ballot paper looked like a riddle box. Choices were given in seven vertical columns with one symbol for each individual candidate. The sixth column had one symbol like a tree or sun or cow but the seventh column had two impressions of the same symbols. Many voters were confused by this arrangement and avoided the sixth column if they were to vote for two candidates with the same symbol. This led to the loss of one precious vote. The fact that two choices could be made from the sixth and seventh columns either vertically in one column, or horizontally or diagonally from two columns was not explained properly. Thus, the process of voting put people under stress and caused several mistakes. A simpler ballot paper would have reduced the number of invalid votes.

One small alteration could make voting simpler: have two ballots instead of a complex one. The first ballot could be for the mayor/deputy mayor or chairman/vice chairman category which would be for the whole local level, while the second ballot could be for the ward category. The ward level workers are known to the people on a personal level, while the wider local level will include strangers. 

Another flaw was that the volunteers mobilised by the EC for voter education never appeared among the actual voters. They were supposed to educate the voters about using the complex ballot. Many voters got this information through the media: radio and TV. But many others did not have access to the media or the time to follow them. It seems the EC took the volunteers for granted; otherwise they could have been monitored from the beginning. This lapse was pointed out in the report of the Human Rights Commission which monitored the election process. 

A similar flaw was seen during the electoral campaign of the political parties. The vehicles with party flags and party cadres were busy raising slogans, but they never stopped by to educate the people about the voting process. The parties must have spent a considerable amount on campaigning, but this did not help the voters to understand the complex ballot.

Another problem with the present election is the cost factor. There is surprisingly high expenditure for security purposes. Violence was not a big problem in the first phase, but things might be different in the second phase, with the hostile element of dissatisfied Madhesi agitators posing security problems. The real problem is political acceptance. So bringing about political peace is the real solution. To this end, a more inclusive and micro level dialogue is what is required. If this issue is resolved, the EC can show greater competency in managing the next phase of local elections. 

- Sharma is a political analyst

Published: 21-05-2017 08:49

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