GENERAL ELECTIONS: Crisis Of Credibility

Although Nepal has been holding elections since 1947 in different political systems and regimes at local and parliamentary levels, Nepal is yet to build an election management body with a credible image. As Nepal is heading for the next general elections on November 20, the parties in the opposition have already started questioning whether Election Commission can hold the election free and fair.

Nov. 15, 2022, 8:31 p.m. Published in Magazine Issue: VOL. 16, No. 07, Nov.18,2022 (Mangsir 02. 2079) Publisher and Editor: Keshab Prasad Poudel Online Register Number: DOI 584/074-75

As the date of the general elections for the House of Representatives is approaching closer, parties in the opposition have already started expressing concern over the possible rigging of the elections by the ruling alliance.

“People will not tolerate any kind of state-managed events to influence the outcome of elections. We all need to be vigilant on the government and its activities,” said CPN-UML leader and former prime minister KP Sharma Oli.“The ruling coalition led by Nepali Congress can do every possible effort to steal the elections and our party workers need to be alert till the completion of counting the vote.”

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The not only leader of the opposition but civil society members are also similar concerns over holding free and fair elections in presence of government machinery at the hands of the ruling alliance.

“It is political parties in the power to take sincere efforts to prove that the elections will be held in a free and fair manner,” said Nilamber Acharya, former law minister and veteran civil society leader. “Elections Commission should be more vigilant, resilient and careful to stop unlawful acts in the elections.”

In a program recently organized by Tanaka Prasad Memorial Trust and INSEC, former chief elections commissioners, election observers, media persons and members of civil society organizations shared their experiences with the existing chief elections commissioner and his team.

Although the duty of holding the elections lies on the Election Commission, it is the government that decides the date and is responsible to provide necessary logistics including security to the commission. Thus, parties in opposition always have doubt over the fairness of elections conducted by particular parties.

Nepal has also followed to hold the elections under neutral persons. Nepal held its second Constituent Assembly elections in 2013 under a caretaker government. It also received the same setback after Maoist Center, which suffered a humiliating defeat, accused the government of favoring NC and CPN-UML.

“Given Nepal’s circumstances, one cannot rule out the possibility of misuse of power in elections. We often heard the incident of booth capturing and stealing ballot boxes. Despite taking stern actions, there were reports of rigging and booth capturing during the first CA elections. Election Commission should be more vigilant and alert,” said former chief elections Commissioner Bhoj Raj Ghimire.

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Moderated by senior journalist Yubaraj Ghimire, the two hours long discussion on the forthcoming elections and free and fair concluded with many suggestions for holding the elections free and fair.

“Only a strong and powerful elections commission can guarantee the free and fairness of the elections process. For this, the chief election commissioner and other commissioners should take all necessary steps,” said Surya Prasad Shrestha, former chief election commissioner and veteran administrator. “We had bitter experiences of booth looting, consuming the ballot paper at counting and so on,” said Shrestha.

Despite holding the elections frequently in the last 75 years period, the elections held by Nepal’s election management body is yet to be completely endorsed by the political parties.

“As long as political parties do not express their commitments, holding the elections free and fair manner is merely a wish in a country like Nepal. My experiences of working in the EC for over 20 years in different positions show that the capacity of EC is alone not enough. At a time when the country is completely divided on the basis of ideology, it is very difficult to hold free elections,” said former chief commissioner Dolakh Bahadur Gurung.

Debate On Fairness

From the start of the elections till the completion of the tenure of the elected persons, losing parties believe that their election was stolen. When his own leader backed his suspicion, he stands the next elections with the same psychological presumption.

Since 1990, it has been a formal and established practice to form a parliamentary probe commission to investigate the freedom and fairness of the previous elections.

After the completion of the elections, the first duty of political parties looks to set up committees to investigate the free and fairness in the elections.

As no party will likely win the seats as calculated by them, they will likely demand a commission following the election results questioning the credibility of the elections. Even after the November 20 elections, political parties will repeat this as give consolation for losses

History of Elections

Nepal has over 75 years long history of holding elections. None of the elections receives a hundred percent approval from parties and candidates contesting the elections.

In 1947, the first municipal elections were held in Kathmandu but parties boycotted the results blaming them for rigging. The second local elections held on September 9, 1953, were canceled because a candidate representing the banned Communist Party won the majority of seats.

The second election was held in February 1959 for parliament with the Nepali Congress securing two-thirds of seat. However, all opposition parties launched the agitation terming the elections unfair.

After the dissolution of the Parliamentary system, Panchayat also held several elections including two national-level elections on the basis of adult franchise for the Legislature. They also faced a similar fate. Soon after the announcement of the results of the National Referendum in 1979, Communists and a group of Nepali Congress declared the elections unfair.

After the promulgation of the constitution of 1990, Nepal holds three elections in 1991, 1995 and 1999 and two elections for local levels. They too land in similar controversy.

Soon after the announcement of the results and calling of the house, high-level parliamentary committees were set up to investigate the fairness of holding the elections.

Although an international observer group declared two elections of the Constituent Assembly free and fair, the question was raised in the parliament regarding the process and its fairness.

After the promulgation of the constitution in 2015, two elections were held for local government in 2017 and 2022 and one election for the national and provincial legislature in 2017.

At a time when political parties particularly those in opposition are yet to have confidence that the election will be held free and fair manner, Chief Election Commissioner Dinesh Kumar Thapaliya has instructed returning officers to be zero tolerant of unlawful activities.

Chief Commissioner Thapaliya instructed returning officers to make sure that no election candidate and representative of political parties will be allowed to assist the visually impaired or person with disabilities or having difficulty participating in the voting process for different reasons, in casting his/her vote and protect their right to vote of persons as any eligible citizen.

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“If a voter commits such act under any pretext despite being capable of voting themselves, he/she will face action under the Election Offenses and Punishment Act,” Thapaliya warned.

He asked them to set an example by setting up gender- and disable-friendly polling stations for the elections to House of Representatives (HoR) and the Provincial Assemblies slated for Nov 20.

EC spokesperson Shaligram Sharma Poudel said that a decision has been taken by which the political parties and the candidates can carry out election canvassing on the online media registered with the Department of Information and Broadcasting and enlisted in the Press Council Nepal, remaining under the Election Code of Conduct, 2022.

Among the decisions include the one allowing the political parties and candidates to disseminate visual material related to election campaigning through online media for a maximum of one minute.

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The time has come to break the traditions questioning the credibility of the elections management body like the Elections Commission and questioning the legitimacy of the elected representative. However, it is not easy than that in a country where democracy is still early stages.

At a time when old democracies have been going through a crisis of confidence in the election process with defeating candidates accusing the process unfair, Nepal needs to go a long way.

Unlike in advanced democracies where other state institutions are strong and credible, political leadership cannot discredit the system easily. As Chief Election Commissioner Thapaliya said strengthening the election commission and giving its all responsibilities related to holding elections will likely solve the current crisis of confidence in the election process.

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Free And Fair Elections Is the Only Option

Chief Election Commissioner Dinesh Thapaliya

On behalf of the Commission, I would like to express my heartfelt gratitude to Gorkhapatra Corporation and its publications for their support in creating a favorable environment for holding the elections to House of Representatives (HoR) and Provincial Assemblies (PA) in a free, fair and fearless manner. We are nearing the final stage of preparations. The commission has completed its preparations for managing voter lists, managing polling stations, polling centers, election materials and budget management. We are now focused on manpower management, transporting election materials that have reached the office of returning officers to the polling stations and centers and preparing to go to the election in a fearless environment. The commission is focused on providing training to avoid any errors and weaknesses.

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The security of political parties, candidates, election staff and voters is a matter of concern during the election. So, we have to prepare a security plan accordingly. A separate security plan has been prepared considering the ground reality of the local level and its current security situation. Similarly, a security plan has been prepared after assessing the security situation of each constituency and analyzing the security challenges. In the same way, we have made district-level, state level and central-level security plans in an integrated manner.

Similarly, every political party and candidate must inform us about their program, including mass meetings, 24 hours in advance. This arrangement has been made to avoid possible clashes between the two groups. Not just visible security, we have looked at all the aspects of security in a subtle manner and have prepared a security plan accordingly. Necessary arrangements have been arranged so that everyone can feel safe and secure.

If anyone dares to break the moral and legal bonds, the EC shall first seek clarification from the alleged violator, followed by an investigation that may result in punishment if proven guilty. For the implementation of the election code of conduct this time, arrangements have been made so that the monitoring officers, election officers and chief returning officers of all 77 districts can also ask for an explanation and proceed with the action. But only the Commission can make the final decision. We will make sure that the violators face the music.

For the first time, the commission has made a policy on how to use social media in elections and the issue of regulating social media is included in the code of conduct. Even so, we have moved forward with the concept of the press office, in order to regulate even the spread of misinformation and hateful expressions that can be spread through social media. Even though this concept has been questioned earlier, it has become irrelevant. Mis-information, dis-information and hate speech should not be mixed with the freedom of expression guaranteed by democracy, election and constitution.

We believe that if we mix character assassination with freedom of expression, it will erode democracy. It is not a matter of our concern if anyone says 'No Not Again', 'No Never Again', 'Elect Again' or 'Elect Again and Again'. The only thing the commission believes is that it should be said in civilized language and should not assassinate anyone’s character. If doing so means suppressing freedom of expression and democratic values, the commission is ready to face criticism and punishment.

The EC is not strict. Looking at the situation in all areas, a political culture is being established in the country. Political parties have also realized that they must follow the election code of conduct as well as election law. If the number of road accidents drops, it doesn’t mean that the traffic police have become stricter; it means that drivers and passengers have become aware of traffic rules. That said, some credit can be given to traffic police. Now put the EC in the place of traffic police. It may get some credit, but lion’s share of the credit goes to voters, political parties, civil society, media, and concerned stakeholders.

In the local poll, the ballot paper was complicated with many election symbols on it. The EC was even compelled to put the election symbol of those parties with no candidates. The voters’ education also couldn’t reach the community level.

Regarding voters’ education, the campaign already kicked off at the community level recently. Under the campaign, campaigners are reaching voters’ doorstep to educate them. This time sample polling is going on at all local levels. We will reach the community to address issues raised in the last local poll and in the case of mobile users, we are using both social media and mass media to educate them.

The final results of November 20’s elections will be announced and the report submitted by December 8. After this, a new session of the parliament will be convened. And as soon as the new members of parliament take their oath of office, the commission will get voters for the presidential and vice-presidential elections.

The first premise is that we have addressed almost all the issues raised by the international community in our context. The eligibility age varies from country to country. And there is an international practice that the people who reach the defined age on a day before the election date will be eligible to cast a vote. Nepal has also adopted this principle from this election. Secondly, the commission has followed the standards, laws and code of conduct to ensure fairness of the election. Thirdly, representatives of various countries and organizations have been called to supervise the elections, with over 40 national and international organizations coming for the task. To enhance fairness, some 10,000 observers – including election commissioners from South Asian countries – will submit their observation reports after the election.

There are three aspects of the electoral system that make it expensive. First is the EC’s own expenditure; the second is the expenditure on election security and the third is the expenses of political parties and candidates. Analyzing all these aspects, this election will be less expensive compared to the previous ones.

The Commission has incorporated this provision in its procedures and guidelines to ensure the disabled, women and senior citizens are able to vote comfortably and have a place to rest. We have also informed the voting officers about these guidelines. This time, we have set up 100 model disabled-friendly polling stations. This problem can easily be solved if the polling officers, employees and security personnel show a little sensitivity.

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