NITI DISCUSSION : Campaign Financing

As the government has announced November 20 as the election date for provincial and national elections, election financing is a much talked about issue now in Nepal. Published by Niti Foundation, Niti Note, which discusses how to handle the financing of the elections to make elections free and fair and affordable, proves as a most relevant document in the present context

Aug. 16, 2022, 8:42 a.m. Published in Magazine Issue: VOL. 16, No. 03, August.19,2022 (Bhadra 03. 2079) Publisher and Editor: Keshab Prasad Poudel Online Register Number: DOI 584/074-75

As the election for provincial and federal parliament is coming close, the debates on campaign financing appears as a major issue. From Elections Commission to leaders of the political party and civil society leaders, all are worried about the rising cost of elections campaigns and their implications for the entire election process.

Based on its study made by imminent constitutional lawyer Dr. Bipin Adhikari and published by Niti Foundation, a Nepali Nepali not-for-profit public interest organization, the study suggest highlights many issues of campaign finance. “If campaign fiancé is not effectively regulated and monitored, it will continue to undermine the integrity of political process and institution and jeopardize the quality of democracy,” says the report title placing the strength of democracy at the heart of the Election Commission’s Agenda.

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As the report pointed out, the leaders of political parties, officials from the elections Commission, members of Civil Society Organizations and experts expressed their concerns on how rising election costs threaten democracy.

Organized by Foundation, an interaction program on Election Financing and Frugality concluded with a consensus opinion that the trust of the people in the entire democratic process is fading because of rampant misuse of money during the elections campaign. All the speakers expressed the view that only Election Commission can bring certain changes.

“With its constitutional authority, only Election Commission can bring tangible change in the current state of elections financing and reforms. Election Commission has both legal and constitutional power to fix the election financing issue,” said imminent constitutional lawyer Dr. Adhikari wrapping up the interactions.

Discussion On Issue

Moderated by Purushottam Ghimire, the program started with the remarks by Mohan Das Manandhar, Executive Director of Niti Foundation. In his opening remarks, Manandhar highlighted the policies and current state of campaign financing.

“Although it was undermined for a long, Elections Commission is taking the campaign financing and frugality as an important issues to ensure free and fair elections. Along with Commission, this issue is now taken by different stakeholders. Niti Foundation is a Nepali not-for-profit public interest organization. We have been closely working in the policy reforms in elections accountability to ensure fairness in elections,” said Manandhar. “There are also issues of accountability and impunity. Campaign financing is a critical issue related to the regulation of political parties by the Election Commission. He said that recently concluded elections have shown how money is influencing elections.

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“EC needs to enforce campaign finance laws and there is also growing demanding from political parties to reform in the laws to manage campaign finance affordable to all,” said Manandhar. “Our studies have shown the necessity of independent electoral management bodies, and the operation and monitoring roles of the EC, in the protection of democracy,” said Manandhar.

He said that Election Commission had done a fairly well job in the last local elections to reduce the campaign cost. “ The Commission’s decision to reduce its cost for the elections is very important to press political parties to follow it,” said Manandhar. As an organization working in policy reform areas, my experience is that there need to have a reform in the election laws as well to limit the campaign cost.”

“A recent election study confirms that Nepal has seen increasing influence of money in the elections. Our study has shown that financiers’ increased influence in the elections, unequal access of funds among candidates and accountability issues during the elections cycle. This is due to proper enforcement of campaign financing law, “

Manandhar said that proper enforcement of the laws is a prerequisite stressing the need to have a monitoring mechanism in place. “Election Commission is taking the issue seriously and it will likely bring change in coming days,” said Manandhar.

Presenting the paper on Campaign Financing with a comparative analysis of regional and global elections costs, former secretary and constitutional lawyer Madhav Paudel highlighted the overall campaign financing of Nepal compared with south Asia and the global level.

In his intensive presentation, former secretary Paudel said that Nepal’s cost of the election is much higher and unaffordable to the common candidate. “Due to elections financing, many genuine political actors are unable to contest the elections,” said Paudel. He said that efforts taken by the commission is commendable but there still require more to bring the campaign financing on the right track.

Paudel presented comparative charts of campaign financing in Nepal from the elections of 1998 to till now and compare the figure with other South Asian countries. “The elections campaigning are getting more expensive in every time. It looks that contesting the elections is impossible for common people.”

He also compared the election expenditure trends of EC and other agencies showing the rising trends in each periodic election.

Spokesperson of Election Commission Saligram Paudyal said that Election Commission has drastically reduced the elections expenditure this local election. He said that the elections commission spent just Rs. 5 billion to hold the local elections this time against Rs.7 billion in 2017.

“Despite the escalation of process in all materials, the cost spent per voter in this current election was Rs.284 against Rs.509 in the last election,” said Paudyal. “We also want to see a reduction from the political parties.”

The protection and consolidation of democracy in Nepal will require more than what the Elections Commission Nepal (ECN) has been doing since its establishment.

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“Apart from attending to the technical management (during the election period) of elections according to the prevailing Constitution, the ECN should also fulfill its normative role and support the electoral system and accountable government. This will create space for the ECN to, directly and indirectly, work on the issues of better representation of public interest, fairer and more equitable policies, and increased accountability of the government — matters that deeply affect citizens’ commitment to democracy and contribute to Nepal’s democratic consolidation,” said Dr. Adhikari.

Other stakeholders including political party leaders also raised the issue of election financing as a crucial issue to make elections free and fair. “ Given the current state of Campaign finance, it is impossible for poor and dedicated political leaders to contest the elections. The elections now is rich man’s game,” said Urmila Aryal, member of the National Assembly and leader of the Maoist Center.

Nepali Congress leader and member of National Assembly Kamala Panta said that election financing is affecting the freedom and fairness of elections. “ Although the cost of contesting an election was not cheap in the past as well, it was much cheaper than the present one,” said Panta. “ It is impossible for politicians like me to contest the election now.”

Nepal has been holding elections since the establishment of democracy in 1951. However, every election is drawn into the controversy over its need to be free and fair in conduct. Every political party prefers to contest the elections while being in power because it can enjoy the certain privileges to use public resources.

The recently concluded elections were generally free and fair. However, CPN—UML termed the elections partially fair and blamed the election commission for taking the side of the candidates of the ruling alliance.

Central Committee member of CPN-UML Usha Kiran Timilshina demanded to levy income tax on political parties. Timilshina said that Commission also needs to reform the present election campaign model to reduce the cost. She said that stopping programs like motorcycle rallies and limiting the number of people in door-to-door campaigns can drastically reduce the campaign cost.

After successfully conducting the local elections, Elections Commission (EC) is now in the process of reviewing the entire elections process including its role, functions, and shortcomings. Its aim is to overcome the shortcomings to be better prepared for the financial issues.

Joint secretary of Election Commission Yagya Bhattarai said that the commission is making every effort to make the elections expenditure of the candidate transparent. He said that the elections commission will ask detailed of the expenditure after the elections.

“The success of the Elections Commission is remarkable amidst Nepal’s ongoing democratic challenges. These challenges come from a feeble democratic commitment from political parties, extremism, a declining standard of the rule of law and public accountability, slow social transformation, and corruption. While the election period that occurs every five years constitutes a key aspect of the commission's s role, the intervening non-election period is also critical for the Commission to expand on its normative role of democratic consolidation. The Commission cannot be expected to only perform mere technical administration of elections. It also has to see itself as playing a wider instrumental role in the continued consolidation of Nepali democracy.

“Learning from past experiences, EC is taking all necessary steps including new elections law with sweeping power related to the election process,” said spokesperson Poudel.

Political leaders hold the view that holding a periodical election alone is not enough to strengthen democracy but it must ensure that the elections will be free, fair, participatory and credible.

“Given the present state of cost of the election campaign, it is impossible for a person like me to contest the elections. It is the duty of the commission to create a favorable environment for all taking policy and legal reform,” said Durga Sob, central committee member of the Nepal Samajbadi Party.

Elections Review

Although it held the local elections in a free and fair manner, the EC, the election management constitutional body, had many challenges before it. In any democracy holding periodical elections for all the tires of governments in a free and fair basis is highly important and Nepal is not an exception. However, EC needs to be institutionally, legally capable and credible in all that it does.

Equipped with constitutional powers, laws, regulations, and the support of civil society organizations, EC has shown that reforms are possible with the dedicated and strong leadership head of the institution. “ Our one and only job are to ensure free and fair elections periodically and work to create a conducive environment to vote for sovereign people. We now need to focus on voter list updates and make necessary arrangements to provide opportunities for eligible candidates to vote,” said Joint secretary,” said spokesperson Paudel.

Given the current situation, the leaders of political parties are putting all their trust on the commission. Leaders like Panta, Aryal, Sob and Timilshina hold the view that the commission can promote and further strengthen the exercise of a free and fair electoral process.

“We have been doing periodical reviews on the elections process and laws, shortcomings and corrections and we are holding a number of programs aimed to seek suggestions to reform its system,” said spokesperson Poudel.

“Independent electoral management bodies like Commission has increasingly been understood to be important institutions. The body can help guarantee and strengthen democratic consolidation, and act as bulwarks against democratic decay,” said Dr. Adhikari.

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Although the commission remains institutionally independent from the executive branch of government, it is yet to fully exercise its own autonomy. As the officials of the commission are outside the purview of the executive, they can enforce the law and regulate the political party to fix the campaign financing,” said Dr. Adhiakri.

At a time when everyone is talking about the need to make political parties accountable and transparent, the discussion is highly important to manage election financing.

The participants of the discussion also hold the view that educating voters is a key aspect of the elections process and Nepal has also been conducting regular voter education courses which is regarded as too technical.

Despite the inclusive and representative constitutional and legal provisions in the constitution, Nepal’s electoral process is yet to accept it.

“Our approach contributes to the larger discourse on the improvement of the election process. This discussion is a part of our effort to strengthen the elections commission,” said Paudel.

As the elections is the backbone of democracy and give people to use their sovereign rights to choose their own candidates. Thus, the election is not a one-time agenda or it is just an event of voting, counting and electing representatives. There need to maintain sanctify of elections through holding free and fair. For this, there need to be strict control, on elections financing.

As it says the election is not a one-time agenda or it is just an event of voting, counting and electing representatives, elections are a regular process that require persistent effort and reform. Election Commission Nepal needs regular technical and non-technical support.

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