There are only 45 days for the much-awaited May 14 local level election. But doubts remain about whether the Election Commission will be able to successfully hold election in every part of the country on that date. What is the commission doing to dispel these doubts? And what happens if, for some reason, there can be no election in certain parts? In an interview with Republica’s Mahabir Paudyal and Bhadra Sharma, Chief Election Commissioner Ayodhee Prasad Yadav assures Nepalis that election will happen on the appointed date and contingent plans are in place in case of unforeseen events.
First of all, can you update us on the preparations for May 14 election?
Preparations are in full swing. Actually, we are working on a war footing. We have already started printing ballot papers, which is the clearest sign of an approaching election. This is also the last stage of preparation. We have already printed ballot papers for 48 districts. This should tell us where we are. Likewise, updated electoral rolls will be printed from April 2. Printed copies of electoral rolls will then be sent to all polling centers. Polling centers also have been finalized in 68 districts.
Plus, we will start printing voter identity cards from April 2; the physical set-up for this is already in place. The size of the ballot paper is going to be different for each district, based on the number of political parties contesting. So we must inform and educate voters on this. Voter education programs will start right away. As for human resources, we have received the name list of chief election officers and other officers for all 75 districts. They will be formally appointed as election officers and they will be trained. Then, by third week of April, we will have set up and brought into operation the offices of election officers.
All election related laws have been finalized, as well as relevant rules and directives. We will get them printed and make them public within this week. So nothing is going to stop the election on May 14. I am 100 percent sure that election will happen.
But some Madheshi parties are still saying they will boycott and disrupt local election.
Yes, there are problems in some districts of Province 2. But in other districts preparations are almost complete. As for Province 2, we have been in constant touch with the government and political parties concerning early resolution of Madheshi issues. We have asked them to create conducive political climate and ensure maximum participation of electorate. For our part, we are prepared to hold election even in Province 2. In recent times, there have been positive signs from Madheshi parties as well. So I am hopeful that Madheshi forces will also come on board. If they don’t, we may have to put the process on hold in Province 2. In fact, we have already halted some preparatory works there to wait for the Madheshi parties. For example, electoral rolls have not been finalized, voter education has not started and ballot papers have not been printed for Province 2.
If there is no election in Province 2 on May 14, does the Election Commission have Plan B?
We are exploring all alternatives. One option would be holding election there a few days after May 14.
We are consulting the government and other stakeholders on this option. There are certain things all political parties must understand. These are not normal times. We have limited time to implement the new constitution and to institutionalize the federal democratic republican system. This cannot be done unless all political forces cooperate and take part in election. But if certain parties are still not sold on election, or if election cannot be held in certain districts of Province 2 on May 14, the commission will make a decision then and there. Even if parties take time to resolve outstanding issues in Province 2, the May 14 vote is not going to stop in other places. No power can stop it now.
But how do you prepare when even today we have no clear idea about the number of political parties and independent candidates who will contest the election?
The Election Commission operates in line with the constitution and relevant laws. The Local Level Election Act provides for electoral symbols for political parties based on the percentage of votes they got under proportional representation component in the second Constituent Assembly elections in 2013. There are currently 113 parties registered with the Election Commission. Each has been given an election symbol. But sadly, not all of them can participate because the Act allows only 27 parties represented in CA to contest the election. The rest can contest as independent candidates. They will also be given election symbols but they may be different to the symbols they had during previous elections. Thus the grievances of some small parties are genuine. But like I said, we work based on our laws and the national constitution.
The Local Level Election Act has some iffy provisions. Candidates without basic formal education and even those who have served jail terms can contest election. Why did the commission endorse such laws?
The Election Commission had prepared a draft of the Act and forwarded it to the parliament’s State Affairs Committee. The parliament discussed, revised and endorsed the Act and sent it back to us. This done, the Election Commission could make no further comments on it.
When and from where will people get their voter identity cards?
Around 12.1 million people had obtained voter identity cards before the second CA elections. Now we have 14 million voters. We are going to print and distribute their ID cards soon. But if a prospective voter has failed to obtain a new ID card, he or she will still be able to vote with the old voter ID card. We will keep all options open to ensure maximum participation. We will issue public notice to inform the people about where they can get their ID cards.
In the second constituent assembly election in 2013, around five percent of the votes that were cast were declared invalid. How is the commission preparing to reduce the number of invalid votes?
Like I said, we are undertaking a rigorous voter education campaign. Besides, political parties and other organizations will also educate the voters. The commission is committed to reducing the number of invalid votes. Voting this time will be different to voting in normal elections as the voter will have to stamp the same ballot paper in seven different places. Many might find this difficult, and hence the rigorous voter education program. However, since people contesting the election will be local leaders, they will also educate their voters. This will be more effective and also contribute greatly to reducing the number of invalid votes.
How about security? How will you ensure that no untoward incident takes place on May 14?
During the 2013 elections, we had deployed strong integrated security teams, yet there still were security-related issues. My approach this time is that since this is local level election, voters of each local level unit should look after their own safety. I say this because election is taking place in small units where everybody knows everybody. Besides, we will have local coordination committees at each election center to facilitate election related work. There will be 21,000 such committees across the country. If they work actively, they will be able to resolve most security-related issues. This does not mean no police will be deployed. Nepal Police, Armed Police Force and Nepal Army also have their own security plans for local election. Hence I think it will be secure to vote on May 14.
We are also going to make maximum use of technology to ensure free and fair election. We are introducing live web-streaming service from the polling stations considered sensitive. This will allow commission officials to maintain surveillance over the poll booths in real time. In case violence erupts or something untoward happens, polling at that center can be immediately called off. We are also establishing call centers in the commission and starting our event-tracking service. We have also notified all those who are in possession of (legal) weapons to submit these weapons at the respective district administration offices immediately. We are monitoring progress on this. We have asked concerned bodies to keep those involved or suspected to be involved in criminal activities under their watch, and to take them into custody, if necessary, during the election. We have also asked them to completely ban production and sale of illegal brews. So there should be no problem in maintaining security.
There are reports of government ministers and political leaders violating election code of conduct. Why is the Election Commission mum?
We are not an established democracy and we are only starting the process of implementing the new constitution. So the Election Commission has to sometimes function according to the law of necessity. However, we have appealed to everyone to inform us about such cases of code violation through telephone, social media or other media platforms. The commission will take steps to control such activities.
You courted needless controversy by removing ‘Hindu state’ and ‘monarchy’ from RPP statute. Why did you do so?
You should ask this question to RPP top leaders. The Election Commission manages the political parties as per the provisions in the constitution. Political parties should also abide by the constitutional norms of federalism, democracy, republicanism and secularism. If any political party has in the preamble of its constitution clauses that clash with provisions in the national constitution, the party should itself remove those clauses. We are not being partial to RPP. We had asked the party to remove the provisions on its own. But when they retained those clauses in their party manifesto, we decided to intervene. We took this step after consulting legal experts, including the attorney general. Besides, we have not rejected RPP’s statute outright. We have only removed certain words from it. I wonder why this should be controversial.
Finally, how do you evaluate the future of local governance in election after the May 14 election?
After the election results come out, people’s representatives will be elected and local level assemblies will be formed. These assemblies will make laws for themselves and those laws will be implemented by the local executives. The local election, if successfully held, is going to revive grassroots democracy and rejuvenate local-level development. So the picture is bright, I would say.