There are a host of issues before the election commission and the state to address as a challenge in order to strengthen and defend the electoral democracy, fostering more inclusive and participatory elections.
Democracy hinges on the credibility of periodic elections held and participated by the political parties and individuals in the exercise of their fundamental civil rights. Since electoral integrity is measured on its fairness, inclusiveness, and transparency, its outcome is guaranteed by its electoral integrity through the mass participation of the people. Misuse of code of conduct and excessive expenditure on campaigning during the electoral context are the early symptoms of electoral fraud that may result in creating an uneven field and further providing space to political corruption. The questions of electoral integrity will be raised when the system is unable to deliver and meet the wider expectation of the people in maintaining fairness and impartiality. It happens due to the existence of a weak legal framework, weak oversight apparatus of the election management body, and weak enforcement mechanisms as well as political will.
With regard to Nepal, based on our experience gained from the last elections held in 2017, it was observed that the electoral system we adopted has been questioned fairly on its integrity. It was found that the loopholes left in the legal mechanism were extensively exploited by the political parties in many ways with procedural and substantial means.
Despite the procedural compliance, there was also a question of fair representation in absence of a considerable size of the voters residing as migrant workers abroad who were denied access to voting. Questions were also raised on the rejection vote. Questions were also raised not only on procedural aspects but also on the constitutional obligation of the election commission to get rights to announce polling dates on its own discretion on maturity of the electoral tenure. The concern was also raised with regard to the empowerment of law enforcement mechanisms as well. Based on several pertinent issues raised on electoral integrity, I will try in this brief write-up to touch upon some pertinent issues only.
The Civil Servants, School Teachers, and Securities personnel, which constituted a considerable size, who were deployed at the polling centers were denied to cast their ballot simply because under the pretext that they do not belong to the electoral constituency and registered voters of the concerned polling booth. Understandably, they may not belong to the constituency they were deployed under the first-past-the-post or direct representation system. But undeniably, every registered voter had the right to cast their ballot under the proportional representation system. This is where the Election Management Body had found misplaced arrangements, which is an important factor for raising the electoral integrity. If two hundred thousand or more (an estimated number of employees deployed for the elections) the voters were given their voting rights to cast ballots under the proportional representation system, the numerical scenario of the representation would have been substantially different than the one we have today.
The presence of all these anomalies and glitches in our electoral system is a grave concern for sustaining democracy. The question arises who should be made accountable and how these anomalies are being addressed. Since democracy is a system based on law and order, we all are destined to follow the standard procedures and protocol designed to protect and strengthen the newly earned democracy. And therefore, government agencies including the political parties and civil society as a whole are equally deemed responsible and accountable for the success and maladies of the electoral system.
When it comes to the electoral contest and election, it is the political parties that show restraint and follow the due process of law in compliance with the values inherited and practice to sustain democratic ideals. Since federalism calls for people centric decision making and power sharing, the converging democratic ideals make systems and institutions lasting and sustainable. The inability to convert the political promises and elections manifestos into actions and tangible outcomes may dismay and frustrate the voter, which could be a cause for political unrest and tragedy.
In Nepal, the first general election held under the newly promulgated Constitution of Nepal, 2072 with federal and republican set up, a host of issues came into the surface raising several questions for maintaining its integrity and wider acceptance. There are a host of issues before the election commission and the state to address as a challenge in order to strengthen and defend the electoral democracy, fostering more inclusive and participatory elections.
The election code of conduct, which constitutes as an inseparable part of election law, was rampantly violated by all the contesting candidates in general and expenditure for electoral campaigns in particular beyond proportion of their income source. This has been characterized and mainly tied with the flaws in the electoral process and practices. Many candidates who contested in the last election complain that the election is becoming very expensive. The complaint was endorsed by a study conducted by the Election Observation Committee Nepal with a finding confirming that the winability of a candidate depends upon his/her capability to spend in electoral campaigns. The finding was also surprising that almost all the candidates surpassed in many fold more than the limit fixed by the election commission which formed as an electoral law on itself. It was also found that many contestants including the political partly aptly used the loopholes left in the legal mechanism and exploited it feverishly without fearing of penalties. Recently it has come into our notice through the news that the Election Commission has deregistered and outlawed more than 50 political parties which did not submit their financial statements for a long time as required by the law, which is an outcome of a weak law enforcement mechanism. Such a practice utterly disregards democracy as well as the integrity of the electoral outcome.
The country is heading towards election in all the three tiers of governments in a year and so. It is becoming more challenging to address the concerns amidst the Covid-19 pandemic since the pandemic has made the environment more complicated not only for the election management body but also for the government and voters as well. Although, this could also be an opportunity for the election management body and political parties to better find the means and ways to make inroads for ameliorating the anomalies we encountered.
The COVID-19 Pandemic has brought a wide range of challenges to the election process such as creating a safe environment for voting, maintaining social distancing, restriction on physical campaign, deployment of employees, deployment of volunteers, election observation etc. The challenges of this level after the pandemic, voter’s turnout may be severely affected due to fear of virus transmission. In such a context the election management body has to be innovative to explore the ideas whether voters can cast their ballot remotely either in person or through alternative physical or digital means. The finding may also help in solving the call of the civic society demanding voting rights for the expatriates and migrant workers, who are residing in foreign countries in search of their employment or for any other reasons. Nepali Citizens who are residing overseas would get an opportunity to vote either by mail or otherwise, which should be accessible as possible.
There is a need for reviewing the electoral laws that are deemed impediments to ensuring free and fair elections. Such laws should either be amended or replaced by new ones. The recruitment of security personnel and budgetary expenditure for this purpose has been questioned by many for its usefulness. In this context, a timely intervention with necessary amendments to the relevant laws are required to address the malaise of such practices.