Keep on voting

  • Election season is in full swing, and archaic practices and laws need to be reformed
- Krishna Man Pradhan

Aug 15, 2017-This is the year of elections for Nepal. In order to implement the new constitution, the country needs to complete a series of elections by January. A good beginning was made by holding local level elections, the first in nearly two decades. Right after the third phase of the polls slated for September 18 in Province 2, the government and the Election Commission will have to start preparations for provincial and federal elections. The government has indicated that it wants both elections to be held at the same time. The Election Commission has not ruled that out, but has pointed to technical, legal and logistical challenges. The most important thing is that an election should have legitimacy and credibility. Independent observation of the voting process to ensure that it is free and fair is thus vital.

The General Election Observation Committee (GEOC) has had the opportunity to observe three general and two local elections, both Constituent Assembly elections, and the recently concluded local level polls. On these occasions, the GEOC has observed numerous weaknesses on the part of the Election Commission, the government and the political parties that have hampered successful conduct of the voting. Preparation of electoral rolls well in advance and regular updates in an orderly fashion have always been missing. The registration of political parties, filing of nominations of the candidates, issuance of election symbols and distribution of voter ID cards have been carried out in a disorderly manner. Voters did not know where they should go to get their ID cards. 

Adding to the confusion

The Election Commission’s decision to distribute the cards just days before the polling day added to the confusion. The huge size of the ballot paper and numerous election symbols (some without candidates) were bewildering to voters. The size of the ballot paper can be reduced to make it less confusing. Meanwhile, voter education campaigns do not seem to have been successful. There were a large number of invalid votes in urban areas too. This shows that voter education campaigns should be conducted in the cities too, not only villages.

Then there is the matter of campaigning and election financing. It was clear during the recent local polls that mayoral candidates could not have conducted their campaigns by spending less that Rs10 million, way above the Rs1 million ceiling set by the election code of conduct. The enforcement of the election code of conduct has improved over the years, but it is nowhere close to the desired level. Big parties and powerful leaders have been found to have exploited loopholes, and the Election Commission has not been able to take exemplary action.

During the recent elections, we also observed that vote counting was not free of flaws. The unfortunate incident in Bharatpur where ballot papers were torn up as they were being counted should be an eye-opener for all of us. There must be stringent laws and actions to deter a repeat of such incidents in the future. And then there is the question of slow justice. It took almost three months for the Bharatpur incident to be finally resolved by the Supreme Court. It is natural to expect that such cases are given fast-track treatment, perhaps by setting up a separate bench. While this was one incident that grabbed national attention, there have been numerous, similar, 

election-related cases that got entangled in the complicated web of laws. Election laws and their enforcement require thorough reform. 

Areas for reform

So how do we go about making things better? First and foremost, there ought to be an institutionally strong Election Commission—preferably with the power to fix the election date—that can strictly enforce the election laws and code of 

conduct. A supportive and cooperative role of political parties is no less important here. This alone will improve the conduct of elections by leaps and bounds. If the Election Commission acts firmly, it can check the excesses of the executive with the help of an independent and questioning media and civil society. 

Second, technical and logistical matters should not be a problem in this time and age. Transporting election materials and logistics, installing them in the polling centres, simplifying voting procedures for senior citizens, women and the disabled, using ballot papers of an appropriate size and addressing problems related to election ballots should not be a big deal. There is no justification for the continuation of such problems. Perhaps having learned from the problems that were seen during the second Constituent Assembly election, the Election Commission has improved the transportation of election materials and ballot boxes before and after elections. It should continue to improve the arrangements.

Third, targeted and tailor-made voter education campaigns must be held wherever necessary. Reform in election laws and their application through the judiciary is also needed. Apart from this, civil society and the media must continuously play the role of a watchdog to ensure free and fair elections. It is a fact that donors have always played an important role in supporting elections in Nepal. Their help in election observation has been crucial, to say the least. They must continue to play this role to help Nepal consolidate its democratic and constitutional gains. This is because fair and independent observation goes a long way in increasing the confidence of voters and stimulating election officials, political parties, candidates and security personnel to remain on the right track.

Pradhan is the general secretary of the General Election Observation Committee

Published: 15-08-2017 08:01

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