Clean up elections to clean up politics
On 26 January, Nepal will elect 20 members to the National Assembly to replace those retiring from the Upper House following the end of their four-year terms, marking the beginning of the second series of elections under the federal system.
Leaders of the governing five-party coalition have already divided up the 19 electable seats amongst themselves, and appointed their nominees – making it certain they will win.
The general conventions of three of Nepal’s biggest and most influential parties in the last months, which were mini elections unto themselves, marked the beginning of campaigning for local and federal elections in the coming year. All major parties including the Nepali Congress (MC), UML and the Maoist Centre (MC) retained their gerontocracies.
Preparations are now underway for local elections, which the Election Commission has recommended should be held on 27 April across the country.
Nepal conducted its first legislative assembly elections as a multiparty system in 1959. Since then, there have been 10 elections for the National Legislature, with the 2017 general elections being the first of its kind after the country ushered in federalism. The year also marked the first time sub-national elections were held in 20 years.
There were 14.2 million ballots cast during local elections in May 2017. However, the number jumped to 15.4 million in provincial and parliamentary elections in November the same year.
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In March 2021, the Election Commission stopped voter registration and published an updated list of 16.2 million voters after former Prime Minister K P Oli dissolved Parliament and announced early elections. The registration process resumed after the Supreme Court reinstated the house in July.
And right after the Election Commission announced the National Assembly polls in November, it also announced the beginning of a month-long special voter registration program during which an additional 600,000 Nepalis registered.
As elections approach, Nepal’s political discourse is already dominated by parties stoking nationalistic and religious fervour. This has made for surprising political partnerships, with the Hindu-right and leadership from self-proclaimed ‘alternative’ parties uniting in their rejection of federalism, secularism and even republicanism.
And if their general conventions were any indication, the parties will use this rhetoric to vilify opponents and gain voters at the expense of issues most pertinent to the people, such as education, migration, healthcare, the economy and the pandemic.
In an ideal democracy, elections force public officials to be accountable. Candidates are elected based on promise of performance. But in Nepal, the polling system itself lacks transparency -- right from election funding. But electoral reform measures like re-demarcation of constituencies based on population, polling systems and voting rights of diaspora Nepalis who cannot cast votes in person, remain neglected.
There has been much back and forth about the demarcation of election constituencies. While Article 286 (5) of Nepal’s Constitution states that the delineation should be done on the basis of population and geography, Madhes-based activists have pressed for constituencies to be divided on the basis of the population only.
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The government formed a five-member Constituency Delimitation Commission to look into possible rearrangement of constituencies for the federal and provincial elections in July 2017. The commission demarcated constituencies by giving 90% weightage to population size and 10% to geography.
Govind Subedi, a professor of population studies at Tribhuvan University, has argued that recent practices have gone in the ‘wrong direction’. He writes in his book Political Demography of Nepal: 'The uneven distribution of representatives … is likely to increase if we adopt a population-size only-method [of delineation] … it can have a far-reaching implication in the geo-polity of Nepal.'
Subedi, who was an adviser to the Commission, continues: ‘It is more likely that the sparsely populated districts in provinces which lie in the western mountains and the far western region will feel regional imbalances in sharing of political power in the national polity, which in turn may lead to provincial conflicts in the years to come.’
Furthermore, Nepal’s election laws are lax enough that the wealthiest in the country who previously bankrolled parties in exchange for personal, professional and policy favours have entered politics themselves. The number of businessmen and contractors elected into leadership in 2017 proves that money, not political competency, decides who is ultimately elected to lead.
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Indeed, the First Past the Post (FPTP) system has become a hotbed for corruption by businessmen, thus undermining democracy, say election experts.
Prominent leaders from across the political aisle, particularly women elected into office like Minister for Women, Children and Senior Citizens Uma Regmi, have spoken in support of an overhaul of Nepal’s current election system into a fully proportional electoral system after having experienced firsthand how the current system benefits the rich, powerful and the establishment, while they are burdened with election debt long after they have left office.
Former Acting Chief Commissioner of the Election Commission Dolakh Bahadur Gurung says that the reform should be such that MPs are not allowed to become ministers, and term limits must be set so that the same people do not hold on to their seats until they are 90 years old.
‘Our Constitution has been amended a fair number of times,’ wrote Gurung in October, ‘it is not impossible to reform our electoral system.’
Meanwhile, the debate about mailed ballots and absentee voting has gained much traction among the Nepali diaspora in recent years. An estimated 4 million Nepalis work, study and live in India, the Gulf, Malaysia, Japan, Korea, Europe and North America.
The Supreme Court issued a directive to facilitate voting for Nepali diaspora across the world in March 2018. However, successive governments have shown no interest in ensuring voting rights for millions of eligible voters living overseas.
And even as the government has begun to expand the reach of its archaic postal service by delivering items like passports to people’s homes, it has not considered postal voting to keep the service relevant. The political establishment seems to fear that Nepalis in the Gulf and Malaysia are fed up with the government back home, and allowing them to vote by mail will be predominantly anti-incumbent.
The Sweden-based International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) says 151 of 216 countries around the world allow voters living abroad to cast ballots in some capacity. According to the Election Integrity Project, 40 countries used postal ballots in their most recent national election before the Covid outbreak.
Nilkantha Uprety, the former Chief Election Commissioner, believes there are two options to eliminate election irregularities. Firstly, there must be an improvement from within parties and candidates such that undemocratic practices are turned into fair competition during elections.
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‘But since it is not easy to achieve that, the second option is to radically change our current electoral system, and it would be unwise to delay in choosing which of the two options is more convenient and effective,’ he warned in a recent op-ed in Himal magazine.
Uprety also noted that in the end, the electoral system does not matter as much as the people involved in the elections.
‘Elections can be free and fair regardless of the electoral system if political parties are democratic, candidates are committed, and there is a guarantee of good governance,’ he wrote. ‘Ultimately, elections can only be successful if the majority of voters make informed choices about the parties and candidates instead of only being interested in when and where to show up to vote.’
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Shristi Karki is a correspondent with Nepali Times. She joined Nepali Times as an intern in 2020, becoming a part of the newsroom full-time after graduating from Kathmandu University School of Arts. Karki has reported on politics, current affairs, art and culture.