Surya Prasad Shrestha was the chief Election Commissioner both during the last Panchayat election of 1986 and during the first parliamentary election of 1991. In the historical context, how does this old observer of Nepal’s election process see the upcoming federal and provincial elections? Mahabir Paudyal caught up with him at his Maharajgunj residence Tuesday evening.
Having closely followed the election process in Nepal over the past three decades, how do you think the process has evolved?
There is a vast difference between elections of the past and those of the present. Until 1990s, we had had limited resources, and there were also fewer voters and parties. For 30 years from 1960 to 1990 we had a party-less system. But a fundamental feature of Nepali politics is that we have had elections even in party-less system. Back in those days, individuals rather than the political parties contested the elections as the parties were banned. But election used to be conducted on a regular basis. In fact, regular election and decentralization of powers were two pillars of the Panchayat system. People say Panchayat survived for 30 years because of the authoritarian king. This is not true. The system survived because it had these two basic tenets of democracy functioning. Election is the lifeblood of Nepali political system. Were it not for elections, the Panchayat system would have crumbled much earlier.
There were elections for grassroots bodies called Village Panchayat to the apex body called National Panchayat. This system survived because it had periodic elections, it decentralized powers to the village and district bodies and strictly followed the principle of separation of powers among the executive, National Panchayat and judiciary.
You held the first parliamentary election after the restoration of democracy in 1990. How was it different from the earlier Panchayat elections?
The first parliamentary election in 1991 went ahead smoothly because we had not dismantled the old institutional framework. We adopted Westminster system of government and bicameral legislative. The focus was to keep the new system smooth and functioning. Even back then Scandinavian countries had recommended adopting proportional representation (PR) system. But I did not accept those recommendations because the PR system would have been too cumbersome for Nepal. I defended my position by giving examples of India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, none of which had adopted PR system. So we rooted for the First-Past-The-Post (FPTP). The FPTP system was not bad in itself. When the first elected government dissolved the parliament in 1994 and announced mid-term election, people started feeling that perhaps parliamentary democracy with FPTP system was to blame. But that was not the case.
It seems like you hold the PR system responsible for new complications in our election system.
There was a lot of criticism of the PR system after political parties started filing PR quotas with their relatives, businessmen, contractors and rich people instead of using it as a means to ensure inclusive representation of all ethnicities, castes and genders. PR system could have been used to strengthen the bonds between the people and those elected under this category. It has had the opposite effect. People do not consider PR leaders as their own. They value leaders elected through FPTP more than those elected through PR system. This raises a question over the suitability of our current election system. I hope political parties assess the effectiveness of this system in the days ahead.
How confident are you that the current PR system will be revised?
Political parties make mistakes but they eventually realize it and make amends. Take the provision of threshold. We lifted thresholds for the first and second CA elections. As a result we had many parties in the CA. More than 100 parties were registered with the Election Commission, making it difficult for the EC to even print ballot papers. When the problem took a serious turn, they imposed threshold on election of political parties.
The PR system has already weakened mainstream parties. Many leaders parted ways with big parties and joined regional ones. I believe the parties will also agree to revise or even scrap the PR system. But I fear that by then enough damages will have been done. Our leaders need to be farsighted from now on. The best development in Nepali politics is that we have established the supremacy of people. No political party can escape election. No party can afford to ignore what the people say. PR system does not seem to have great public support. So in due course things will have to change.
What do you think about election candidates’ growing expenditures in campaigning? It has become impossible for a common man to contest election.
Election expenditures, be it from the government, the Election Commission, the political parties or election candidates, they have all gone up. This must be reduced. Today elections look like lavish parties with a lot of eating, drinking and merry-making without any care for expenses. It should not have been that way. Our election process must be made economical because we will have to hold elections under three tiers under this system. When a candidate contesting election at the local level has to spend as much as a million rupees, how much will someone contesting for provincial and parliamentary elections have to spend? We will have frequent elections from now on so we cannot afford to have such expensive elections.
Yet I do not agree that it has become impossible for a common man to contest election. Yes, election expenditure has surely gone up. The government and commission have not been frugal enough. But political parties have also increased their resources. They these days allocate money for election candidates. There are cases in which candidates do not spend a penny and yet wins. The important thing in a democracy is how much people trust the system. So long as people trust it, expenditure is a secondary issue. The day people stop trusting the system we need to be alarmed.
Election today seems more expensive also because our economy has grown over the past few years. We have billions of dollars coming in from remittance. Out wages, income levels and volume of production have also increased. So you cannot expect expenditure to remain at the rate of the 1990s. Expenditure should be proportionate to our economy. Today it is large. This is a problem. But we tend to generalize from individual cases. The contractors who have been given election tickets might spend millions in campaigning. But this does not mean that other candidates should spend as much to win. We need to look at election expenses holistically.
The Election Commission has been criticized for failing to enforce election code of conduct. Has the commission become weak?
I have a different view on this. Yes, the commission has failed to enforce code of conduct. But look at sheer size of the code-book. There was no need for such ambitious and unrealistic code. The EC warned the prime minister not to reshuffle and expand his cabinet. This was a prerogative of the prime minister and he did it anyway. I am not defending the government. We do not need so many ministers on election eve. But this is a moral question. The prime minister should not have created a situation whereby he had to be reminded by the commission on cabinet reshuffle. But the EC should also not have been that ambitious. It should have stayed within its jurisdiction. Let us not forget, the commission helps the government hold election. Unless the EC and the government do not cooperate, election cannot be held smoothly.
What then is the way out, in your view?
The best way out would have been an election government comprising non-political personalities. There was this practice during the Panchayat regime. Non-political government would at least not expand cabinet on whim, nor would it dare distribute funds to election candidates or award projects to its loyalists on election eve, unlike what the incumbent government is doing. The situation today is that election candidate and prime minister is the same person. The home minister who is supposed to ensure security to candidates of rival party is himself a candidate. If we had an independent government solely for election purpose such anomalies would be reduced. We experimented with that during the second Constituent Assembly elections in 2013. That government had successfully conducted polls to the satisfaction of all parties.
How do you analyze our voting patterns? And is it true that our electorate hesitates to vote for different parties in different elections?
No, Nepali people have always demonstrated wisdom while voting. They have punished parties which failed to address their aspirations. Look at the verdict of 1994 polls. People made Nepali Congress second largest party in parliament because Congress had dissolved the erstwhile parliament. They chose CPN-UML. When they saw government instability in the name of coalition culture, they again made Nepali Congress the largest party in next election. People do not tolerate political parties that make mistakes, which do not honor their verdict. They have always provided clear roadmap to parties. They are voting to choose their provincial and federal governments for the first time. They must have figured out which parties best serve national interest. They will award the parties which demonstrate commitment to serve the people and punish those who do not. They have done so in the past and they will do in this election as well.