“We are treated like ATMs”
In an informal survey, Nepalis in the United States were asked about elections back home this year to three levels of government.
Most replied that they do not care much about politics either in Nepal or the United States, they just want to finish their studies, or save enough to send to families in Nepal.
Most had no plans to return to Nepal any time soon, among common reasons like quality of life, financial security, and the need to support families back home.
But there was one response that seemed to go to the heart of it: "Nepalis do not have equal rights."
Although Nepal ranks fairly high in gender equality because its reservation laws for elected representatives, and is above many other Asian countries in the Human Rights Index, there are persistent gaps. Caste, ethnic and gender discrimination are still rife, and socio-economic inequities hold the country back.
What rankles Nepali students here is that, like the other 4 million or so compatriots overseas, they cannot exercise their right to vote in local elections on 13 May or in provincial and federal elections later this year.
Some saw their Filipino classmates or colleagues voting in this week’s elections, and are puzzled why Nepal cannot do what the Philippines does. Non-resident Indians may even be allowed to vote by post in the 2025 elections.
The United States allows overseas voters to cast ballots after filling in a Federal Post Card Application. The UK allows nationals abroad to cast postal votes or even delegate someone else to cast a proxy vote.
Despite a Supreme Court verdict in 2018, Nepal’s Elections Commission still has not got its act together to allow the diaspora to cast their ballot.
The Nepal Supreme Court’s six-point directive four years ago ordered the government to make necessary arrangements to allow Nepali citizens living and working in foreign countries to vote in elections at the country’s diplomatic missions and universities abroad. It also directed the government to prepare a list of Nepalis who have not renounced their Nepali citizenship, or obtained citizenship of the countries they are living in.
To be sure, only 45 out of more than 200 countries currently have procedures to allow absentee mailed ballots. But for a country with a Constitution that is regarded more progressive than previous ones, this is a glaring omission.
As many as 14% of Nepal’s total population is abroad. Many are migrant workers in India, the Gulf, Europe or East Asia. Others are students in Australia or the United States. The estimated $7 billion dollars they send home every year is keeping Nepal afloat through its current economic crisis. In fact remittances from Nepalis abroad accounts for nearly a third of Nepal’s GDP, second only to Kyrgyzstan in Asia.
Overseas Nepalis are also exposed to a diverse, global perspective from work experience and education. They have more data points to know what Nepal needs, how possible solutions might be viable, who can implement solutions, and vote as informed citizens. And yet they are not allowed to cast their ballots.
“It's not that Nepal’s parties are not aware of this situation,” says one student whose family members work for the government back home. “But they are afraid that our votes will be against failed politicians who have ruled Nepal for so long.”
Officials in Nepal admit privately that they fear there will be a lot of cheating if absentee ballots are allowed. But if the Philippines can do it there is no reason why Nepal cannot, and this indicates a lack of political will.
Overseas Nepalis all have access to the internet, so e-voting would be an easy, effective and fraud-proof solution. All it needs is a law allowing mailed ballots.
“Our contribution to Nepal has been ignored, we do not want to return to Nepal as long as our hard work is not valued,” said a Nepali worker here, who like others, did not want to be identified. “The government just sees us as ATMs.”
Back home, Nepali Congress leader and former foreign minister Prakash Sharan Mahat has indicated that voting by mail may not be possible in the foreseeable future. He was quoted as saying recently: “It may not be possible in local elections, nor in the upcoming parliamentary elections. It would be a great achievement if we succeeded to make it possible in the coming five years.”
Despite that inability to exercise their franchise, most are worried about political disarray and the economic crisis in Nepal. They follow developments in Nepal closely and constantly on the internet, and express worry and frustration.