Free and unfair

The Election Commission’s bill can ensure electoral reform. Parliament must pass it.

Illustration: SWORUP NHASIJU

We can sit here all day, moaning and groaning about everything that is wrong with Nepal. But what are the solutions?

One place to start would be with electoral reform. Just about every malaise in Nepali politics starts with flaws in the voting process. Despite periodic elections giving a candidate mandate, it rarely translates into performance legitimacy. As a result, crooks get re-elected over and over again.

It has become fashionable these days to blame democracy for governance failure, corruption, and lack of accountability. Some like the current prime minister are batting for an executive presidency to streamline decision-making. 

Since 1990, however, the malfunction has not been in the democratic system but in the elected office-holders who populate it.

In many parts of the world, the democratic process has been hijacked by populists who fan ultra-nationalism, religious intolerance and xenophobia to get elected and then proceed to dismantle the very institutions of democracy that got them elected in the first place.

The stench of decomposing democracy is now overpowering, even in a certain neighbouring country. Although in Nepal we need to remain vigilant to prevent the election of demagogues, our problem is different: politicians who have struggled, suffered and sacrificed their lives for the restoration of democracy are the very ones undermining it. 

And since democracy by definition means adult franchise, we have to ensure that all citizens have a say in selecting the most honest and efficient managers to run their municipal, provincial or federal governments for a given period.

The electoral system in a democracy lays down the rules about how those candidates are chosen. If the rules are relevant and are followed, we get a representative government and the people can reward elected officials with a second term in office.

Nepalis have historically shown great enthusiasm at election time, with turnouts usually exceeding 65% in most constituencies. The voting is relatively peaceful, free and fair. The 2015 Constitution made elected assemblies more inclusive in terms of gender and minorities.

However, there have always been serious concerns about election financing and the high cost of campaigning. Vote buying, cashing in on caste, ethnic or party vote banks end up narrowing the choice for voters.  

A candidate who has to first pay the party boss for a ticket, then spend a fortune on wholesalers of bulk votes will (if elected) try to recoup that investment many times over. 

This politics of patronage means that campaign financing comes from business cronies who will demand their pound of flesh in licenses and contracts from the representative they helped elevate to office. 

That is why we now have so many businessmen who are MPs,  mayors and ward chairs. Captains of industry figured that instead of giving money to someone else, why not run for office themselves?  This has made it more and more difficult to distinguish between businessmen and politicians, it has politicised crime and criminalised politics. 

On Monday, Nepal’s Election Commission came out with a new integrated draft bill based on several laws that will now be debated in the current session of Parliament. 

The bill contains some radical reforms which, if implemented, could change the electoral system for the better. The First Past the Post (FPTP) system is the root of corruption, and the bill would disallow those who have lost an election from contesting from another constituency.

The Proportional Representation (PR) system was supposed to promote inclusiveness, but has mostly promoted nepotism. The bill would bar serial MPs elected under the PR quota from contesting more than twice.

Since the FPTP system has not ensured gender balance, the bill binds parties to ensure that 33% of candidates for direct voting are women. The bill also seeks to add ‘None of the Above’ on the ballot paper, and if 50% of them are no votes, the election is null and void.

Perhaps the most welcome point in the bill is a provision that we have been hammering away at in this space for years: absentee ballots. Mailing and early polling would ensure that the 15% of Nepalis living abroad can exercise their constitutional right to vote

Successive governments have blocked absentee ballots despite a Supreme Court ruling in 2018 because they fear diaspora votes will be anti-incumbent. The International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) notes that 151 of 216 countries allow nationals living abroad to vote. 

What the Election Commission does not go far enough in its proposed bill is to make election financing more transparent because that is at the root of corruption in high places. We realise this is notoriously difficult to enforce, and even the United States has not been able to rein in campaign financing. But rules should at least be laid down.

There is rampant abuse of the PR system as a fig leaf for inclusion, why not scrap it altogether and instead require parties to field more women and minorities in the direct ballot.

In the final analysis, elections work if the political parties themselves have internal democracy, and the voters can make informed choices about candidates. Otherwise we will keep on having free and unfair elections that deliver the same tried, tested and failed candidates to office.

Parliament may do well to not just pass this bill, but also add into it additional reform measures about campaign financing. 

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