Neel Kantha Uprety, the Chief Election Commissioner during the second Constituent Assembly elections in 2013, believes it is possible to hold local elections before monsoon and the two
remaining elections by January, 2018. But how? And how do we make sense of recent proposed electoral reforms? Uprety shared his insights with Republica’s Mahabir Paudyal and Bhadra Sharma.
Of late it seems that all the major political parties are geared up for timely polls. Is that a right reading of the ground reality?
They seem to be proactive but the government has not been able to declare election dates. So I feel they are only pretending. They are responsible for providing legislation and resources to the Election Commission (EC) so that it can prepare for and conduct elections. Some government ministers and political leaders have been saying that local elections can be held within two months of announcement of poll dates. This surprises me. The EC at least needs three months for preparatory works. So there is room to doubt local polls can be held before monsoon. Parties are not prepared for the polls. They claim they are as they are constitutionally obligated to say so.
Normally, political parties in power are keener on elections than parties in opposition. This is the practice elsewhere and this has been a trend in Nepal since 1990. When you are in power during the election, you can both use and misuse governance resources to influence the electorate. This is wrong but this is what political parties in Nepal have been doing for over the years. This time around, the opposite seems to be true. Parties in power seem reluctant while main opposition is demanding early elections. Those in power have been making one after another excuse. They say so and so force has not come on board or constitutional matters are yet to be sorted out. If the parties had given the Election Commission the authority to announce election dates, we would be preparing for polls now.
You said it is difficult to hold local elections before monsoon. Is there a way to overcome that difficulty?
There are some ways. The local election will elect 719 local governments. You don’t need to complete elections of all these units in a single day. We can divide the country into different sectors and hold elections on a phase-wise manner. You may start from the region where rainfall starts early and then move to the regions that receive rainfall late. So plan for elections in different phases if you can’t make them all happen at once. It will enable you to manage the logistics and human resources with greater ease. The human resources used in the first phase can be used for the subsequent phases.
But how are elections possible when some political parties have vowed not just to boycott elections but also to actively disrupt them?
Even if you cannot hold polls in some village and municipal councils in, say, some Tarai districts, why should that stop elections elsewhere? In places where you can conduct election, there will be local governments in place and they will be carrying out their responsibilities. When elected local governments in some districts start functioning, people from the neighboring village and municipal units will start demanding elections there too. It will create pressure on the parties not to obstruct the election process. This way, we will be done with local level elections throughout the country by September or October. And this won’t be the first time local elections will be held in phase-wise manner in Nepal.
If you recall the last local elections of 1997, we had started from the eastern parts of the country and then moved on to other regions. We had completed all elections within a year. This was during the Maoist insurgency. The situation is much easier now. If the government takes the decision and drafts necessary laws immediately, nothing can stop local elections. But it seems the parties are looking to waste time. Otherwise, why discuss the threshold issue, which is not at all related to local elections?
What about the contention of Madheshi forces that provincial elections should be held before local elections?
This surprises me. Have they even read the constitution? You must first hold the local election and only then move to provincial and federal elections. Only then you can elect the National Assembly.
Some believe that the three sets of elections can be held at once. Is that a realistic possibility?
That’s not possible. Local elections have to be held first. But we can still hold elections of provincial and federal parliament at the same time if the political parties as well as the electorate are ready for a compromise.
What kind of compromise are you hinting at?
We have adopted mixed electoral system for provincial and federal parliaments. You caste two votes—one under first past the post (FPTP) and other under proportional representation (PR) system. If you want to hold these elections together you will have to place four ballot boxes in one election center. You will be using four ballot papers and four ballot boxes. I do not underestimate the intelligence of our voters but it will all be very confusing for them. Our experience with the two CA elections suggests the same. But we can prevent this confusion if we make a compromise. Let us have only one ballot paper for provincial and federal elections. When you vote for a candidate from a particular political party, you will also have voted for the party s/he represents in PR component. You can do the same for federal parliament election. When you complete counting nationwide, you will come to a total figure of PR votes and parties can decide PR quotas based on the votes they received under this category. This will also help the commission as well as political parties with printing of ballot papers, vote-counting and other logistical issues. Many may not like this idea because under the existing system, you can vote for a candidate you like under FPTP and the party of your choosing under PR. But if we must complete elections within the constitutional deadline, we must compromise.
Given the time constraint, what are the things that can be done to ease the process of local elections?
Time will be no hurdle if the parties agree on short cuts. There are two critical components to local elections, production of ballot papers and nomination of candidates. EC says ballot papers for local election could be as long as one and a half meters. Will they be able to produce around 14 million of such ballot papers of more than 30,000 different types? Can those be printed in Kathmandu and transported to around 10,000 polling stations on time? This is a mammoth job. This cumbersome process can be made simpler. For this the political parties should file their nominations for village/municipal councils and ward units at least a month before the election date. If they do that, EC will know early on how many candidates from how many parties are contesting elections. The EC thus won’t have to enlist every registered party in the ballot paper. It can leave out those who do not contest elections. Then EC will list the candidates and parties in the order of priority. Then you can assign the responsibility of printing ballot papers to district offices of Election Commission because these offices have their own printing presses. ‘But what about the quality of the ballot papers?’ you may ask. The designs and symbols should be easy to decipher. But you don’t need special papers for this.
You talked of delegating ballot paper-printing to district offices? How will this help?
First the central office of Election Commission will be relieved of a huge burden. The volume of printing will be low. In this scheme, you don’t need to include every single party registered in the EC in ballot papers. Some VCs will have only 10 to 20 candidates for elections. Thus even A4 size or A3 size paper will suffice for this.
But won’t it raise questions over security of ballot papers and possible fraud?
For this you can make specific stamp for each polling center with code number engraved in it. So if you have 10,000 polling booths, you will need 10,000 stamps with 10,000 different numbers or codes. You can do this within a day. This number will be disclosed to the representatives of political parties and election officials at the time of voting. So only the ballot paper with one specific code number will be valid for one polling center. We won’t have to print more papers than needed. Transportation will also be easy.
You have been advocating for sweeping reforms in electoral laws. Do you think the electoral laws currently under discussion in the parliament incorporate some of your recommendations?
For the functioning and health of a democracy, it is vital that political parties be transparent and accountable. In this light, the legislation regarding offence and punishment for political parties has been improved. This is appreciable. But it remains to be seen how courageously EC will implement those provisions and how political parties will cooperate with the EC.
As for funding and transparency of parties, the bill proposed by the EC has been altered by home and other ministries. The Ministry of Law is entitled to make corrections on words and phrases proposed for reforms by the EC. But it has taken away some of the clauses that would make political parties more accountable and transparent.
Political parties need funds during elections. They have been raising funds from various sources but there is no proper record of who donates how much. So parties have been hiding their income and expenditure details. No party in Nepal has ever disclosed how much they spend on their election campaigns. So I had proposed that the government should finance elections but earning and expenditure of political parties must then be audited by the government. I had proposed that a party should not be allowed to raise donations over Rs 25,000 at one time and they should maintain proper receipts. All unaccounted money should then be confiscated. But they have taken away that provision as well. Political parties have not made any real changes.
But the Election Commission has also not been able to push the reform agenda strongly, has it?
They are weakening the commission. Some lawmakers have even been demanding that district EC offices should not be involved in election process. They want district judges and the officers designated by district judges to oversee and monitor elections. This is not right. It seems the home ministry and political parties do not want a strong commission. It seems like they want to make the commission a branch of home ministry. Assigning election-related works to other branches of government while we still have EC office in every district and region is to undermine EC’s role. I am worried that parties will try to disenfranchise the provincial and local commission offices in federal set up as well.
Core staff to oversee election process should be from the commission, not from other government bodies. When the system is set and stabilized we can even bring students from universities and make them election officers. You could even select polling officers from among educated voters in voter lists. You could request them to volunteer and if they agree you could train them and mobilize them as election officers. But that is not the case right now. If the parties are committed to fair election, they must implement election reform measures the commission has been proposing for the past five years. They should not tweak reform measures at their whim and fancy.
They have also curtailed the power of Election Commission to directly procure essential items. It needs to be able to buy essential items within a short time without opening tender. But this power has been taken away. If you want the commission to follow due legislative process while it needs to immediately procure election materials, it won’t be able to do so. Now without the approval of the Ministry of Finance, the EC cannot directly procure the materials needed at critical times. It is being sabotaged.
Why are the parties so opposed to vital election reforms?
It is obvious. Parties do not want a strong commission because they want to be able to influence election outcomes. When they empower the commission, they won’t be able to do so. They want to render the laws toothless so that they can have their way in the elections. But if the parties want to institutionalize democracy, they should not hesitate to initiate these reforms.