The EC constantly shifts positions and buckles under pressure

  • Interview Neel Kantha Uprety

Nov 6, 2017-

With the provincial assembly and federal parliament elections scheduled for November 26 and December 7, the Election Commission (EC) has had to scramble to re-print ballot papers according to the Supreme Court’s (SC) mandate.

Mukul Humagain talked to former Election Commissioner Neel Kantha Uprety about possible fallout to the quality of elections this move could have, including on voter education,  how Nepal’s Election Commission is largely toothless when it comes to making important decisions independent of political parties, and rampant violations of the election code of conduct by the parties and election preparedness.

Could there be obstructions to the upcoming elections to the provincial assemblies and federal parliament?

The problem with holding elections in Nepal is that political parties are always wary of polls; they feel that they may not win and so tend to delay polls as much as possible. They try to stir up trouble by drawing attention to trivial issues. This trend has held true in elections this time as well. I however believe they will not obstruct elections in a major way this time. 

The only problem that could possibly obstruct the upcoming elections on November 26 and December 7 concern geographical and environmental adversities. A large portion of Nepal’s constituents live in mountainous areas. To take ballot boxes to these areas, to educate voters, and to encourage voters to travel across mountainous terrain to cast ballots is a problematic issue under any weather conditions. But to do so during winter only adds to the difficulty. We have been told that it has already starting snowing in some areas. The elections should have been held earlier to avoid this. 

What is your take on the Election Commission (EC) printing a single ballot paper for both the provincial assembly and federal parliament elections? How will the Supreme Court’s (SC) order for two separate ballot papers for First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) elections play out with the overall election cycle and on the election day?

One only has to look at the ballot paper to see that it has clearly been divided into two sections (one for the provincial assembly and another for the federal parliament). However, the problem is that, physically, there is only a single ballot paper.  

In my opinion, there should in fact be four separate ballot papers, not merely the two demanded by the SC. There should be two separate ballot papers for Proportional Representation (PR) and FPTP for the provincial assembly elections, and there should be two separate ballot papers for PR and FPTP of the federal parliament elections.

But, given the time crunch and with only three months to prepare, I can see why the EC felt the need to print only one ballot paper if they were to meet the election dates. 

I also believe that the EC was under the impression that the number of parties contesting elections was going to be substantially larger than what the final number ended up being. The EC believed that they would have to print large ballot papers, which would take even more time and make it difficult for them to meet the pegged dates. 

Of course, there were ways around this time crunch. For example, in addition to Janak Education Material Centre, other printing presses could have been used once secured by the army or police. 

There were a high number of invalid votes in the elections for local government. Do you think this trend will be seen in the upcoming elections as well?  

A lack of voter education hugely affected the nature of votes cast during the local elections. Ballot papers were complicated and voters had to stamp several different sections; this caused considerable confusion. 

I believe that invalid votes could definitely be an issue during the upcoming elections for the provincial assembly and the federal parliament as well. Voter education should be mobilised immediately to avoid such mistakes.

The EC has to mobilise trained workers and make sure that villages all over the country have access to voter education. Individual households should be approached and educated, and pamphlets, posters, and dummy ballots for demonstration should also be prepared. 

I have heard that the EC had to dump Rs 90 million worth of voter education materials it had prepared in accordance to the structure of single ballot paper. But I believe that such materials could be prepared for the new two ballot paper system in time for the polls if immediate action is taken. Voter education has now been postponed for a week to give the EC more time to prepare new materials. 

The EC has faced criticism for a number of reasons such as the lack of enforcement of the Code of Conduct (CoC) and the lack of curbing Cabinet expansion. Has the EC allowed the government to call all the shots instead of standing as a separate decision making entity?

By all rights, the EC should stand strong and hold its ground. A body such as the EC is dependent on the strength of its members. If these members are compromised, then the EC cannot function according to its mandate.

Members of the EC should do their best to uphold their position and the responsibilities associated with it. However, this does not always happen. Political allegiance comes into play in many facets of Nepali society, and the EC is no exception. We have seen the EC constantly shifting positions and further buckling under pressure from the state and political parties. 

What is the possibility that state resources allocated for the polls will be misused? And what is your take on the cap that the EC has set for electoral campaigns (it is obvious that Rs1.5 million for provincial assembly, and Rs2.5 million for federal parliament is not enough)?  

The costs for elections have increased exponentially. In 2013, Rs4.26 billion was spent for the second constituent assembly elections. Now, Rs10-12 billion was spent for the local government elections alone. I believe that an additional Rs15-20 billion will be spent for the remaining polls. The state budget cannot keep up with this level of expenditure in the long run. 

I estimate that Rs100 billion will be mobilised during these elections. Where these funds come from, I cannot say exactly, but a portion of it will definitely come from the state coffers through underhand methods, particularly because there is no transparency for party funding. 

The cap set by the government will not be adhered to, because there is no means to track it. The use of funds has to be regulated by the government, and the cap on funds for campaigning has to be set in law. Until a proper source is identified for funds, until  they come through a valid bank account, and until they are audited by the government, illicit monetary exchanges cannot be stemmed. 

Perhaps a bill such as one proposed in 2058 stating that governments should allocate funds to parties on the basis of the votes they raise could help in stemming corruption?

The EC drafted the bill and sent it to the government, but it resulted in naught. The parties are not willing for the bill to be approved.

Perhaps if all parties were allowed equal opportunities for campaigning, and if there was full accountability and transparency, then we could truly establish a democratic system. 

Currently, however, people think that spending more than other candidates will ensure a win. This is what has corrupted our system. 

The Code of Conduct (CoC) is clearly not being enforced. Does it need to be reviewed in order to be more effective?

Technically, the code of conduct is not something that should have to be enforced. It should be embedded in society as proper behavioural guidelines that all those who are civilised should follow.

But in a place like Nepal, it was considered necessary to explicitly define the CoC. And even that has not proven to be enough. The code will only be adhered to if it is turned into a rule, and only if there are repercussions if it is breached. 

Could the emerging political alliances prove beneficial for Nepal’s elections?

Smaller parties are trying to merge and perhaps with the new alliances that are formed, the governments will be able to hold their terms for longer periods of time.

Parties securing less than 3 percent of total votes in the PR elections will not have their votes counted for representation in the federal parliament. So this has pushed smaller parties to merge together and form alliances. 

Considering the questionable character of a number of candidates who are standing for the upcoming elections, do you think our country is heading down a dark path?

Money is the biggest driver during elections. Without money, elections cannot be won. People tend to spend money for position and power. Corrupt people are standing for elections and they can do so because they have money. This is a trend in Nepal, and it remains prevalent. 

Published: 06-11-2017 08:28

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