KATHMANDU, April 5: Under pressure from the government, the Election Commission (EC) on Wednesday relaxed the election code of conduct, allowing government ministers to participate in poll campaigns organized by their respective parties.
The election code of conduct enforced for the local level elections bars ministers and officials in public positions from participating in poll campaigning. Under the election code, ministers were asked not to go beyond the district headquarters, the conclusion being that their presence at local level and at public functions could influence election outcomes. Ministers were strictly instructed not to go to the village level and participate in poll campaigns.
“We have relaxed some provisions of election code. Now onward, even ministers can participate in poll campaigns but they have to use private road vehicles,” said Election Commissioner Ila Sharma.
With this decision, ministers can now go to the village level in their private vehicles and participate in poll campaigns until May 1. “They can participate in poll campaigning until we distribute election symbols to the parties on May 1,” said Sharma.
Opposition parties, however, have opposed the election body’s new decision, arguing that it could indeed influence the upcoming elections. They said the election body’s decision was against its own commitment to conducting the elections in a free, fair and credible manner.
“I assume the election commission had barred ministers from participating in party programs thinking such participation could influence the elections. The way they have now revised the election code is not right,” said Agni Kharel, a leader of the main opposition CPN-UML.
The EC’s decision to let ministers participate in poll campaigns as long as they use private cars runs counter to the original spirit of the election code of conduct and its decision to seek clarifications from ministers accused of participating in election campaigns. It has already sought clarifications from Deputy Prime Minister Bimalendra Nidhi.
DPM Kamal Thapa and Energy Minister Janardan Sharma were also accused of reaching out to the voters in breach of the election code. Thapa, who is also minister for federal affairs and local development, was found participating in a poll campaign organized in Kaski. The EC sought clarifications from him also. It has, however, not sought any clarification from Energy Minister Sharma, who was accused of participating in a party program in Gorkha district. The EC said he had taken its consent.
Informed sources close to the EC said Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal and ministers have repeatedly demanded that they should be allowed to participate in their respective parties’ poll campaigns. “They were pressing the commissioners to relax the code of conduct and let them participate in poll campaigning,” said a senior election officer seeking anonymity.
In the 2013 Constituent Assembly elections, an election government was formed under then chief justice Khil Raj Regmi and the ministers did not participate in any poll campaigning.
The EC has been criticized for not enforcing the election code of conduct effectively. Contrary to the past practice of enforcing the code immediately after the announcement of the poll date, the EC this time enforced the code only a week after the date was announced.