What goes on in Nepal’s elections
Nepal’s Election Commission is tasked with conducting free and fair elections and oversees every aspect of it from voter registration, and campaign compliance, to the actual voting and counting process.
To ensure a smooth election, election observers are assigned at polling booths across the country to closely monitor voting.
Here are some of my observations of the local level election in Kaski’s Machapuchre Rural Municipality as compared to the 2013 Constitution Assembly election as well as the 2017 local, provincial, and federal elections.
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On the single day allocated for candidate registration in 2017, election officials were inundated by those registering their candidates for the local polls at election institutions across the country. Two days were assigned for registration during this election — but it made little difference.
While independent candidates mostly got registered in Kaski on the first day on 24 April, candidates of Nepal’s mainstream political parties flocked together to the election offices at the last moment during the second day, and they were registering till well into the night, overwhelming officials.
By 2017, traditional campaigning methods like posters, street-art, and graffiti had gone down significantly and the use of social media by candidates had risen exponentially. Meanwhile, there was notable use of election merchandising, mainly clothing.
The internet played an even bigger role in advertising in 2022, along with door-to-door campaigns and election rallies. And although pamphlets were distributed during both small and large scale campaigning, traditional forms were nearly obsolete, including merchandising.
The 2013 CA elections saw many instances of candidates not being allowed to campaign, and there were clashes. Some candidates were barred from campaigning in 2022, and there were cases of contenders being pressured to withdraw their candidacy by the party leadership, as well as of big parties dissuading smaller parties and independent candidates from contesting.
Code of Conduct
The irony of elections in Nepal is that the very political parties that have expressed their commitment to abide by the election code of conduct continue to violate it, with electoral institutions bearing silent witness.
Indeed, the Election Office did not prioritise let alone pay attention to election code violations unless complaints were made specifically. And even then, the attention was limited to asking concerned parties for clarification without any clear end to code violations.
In the days leading up to the election, Pokhara’s then mayor attended the inauguration of a newly-constructed bridge— election slogans blaring from the loudspeaker of his vehicle—in a blatant attempt to sway voters.
The Election Officer sought a clarification, but the mayor was let off with a warning after he conveyed that he had simply gone to the site to observe the bridge, not inaugurate it.
Voter list and ID
Numerous errors in the voter roll meant that the exact turnout could not be ascertained from the list. There were mistakes in personal details, including names and dates of birth. Adult voters were found missing from the list, while duplicated names as well as names of the deceased were retained. Conducting elections on the basis of flawed voter lists is a challenging task for polling officials. However voters cannot be deprived of their rights due to auch shortcomings.
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The lack of voter education has been the biggest shortcoming in this election. The sheer number of candidates on the ballot, combined with the seven representatives that needed to be chosen for each local unit, meant that the ballot paper was big and complex.
In the run-up to the previous local election, volunteers were deployed from door to door to familiarize voters with ballot papers.
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For their part, political parties only taught voters to put the stamp on their party symbol all across the board, overlooking the fact that many candidates were contesting the election under an alliance with coalition parties. Moreover, this was also not very helpful to voters who planned to vote for candidates of different parties, including independents.
Although the overall percentage of null votes were relatively low, the amount of invalid votes for some of the seven positions was disproportionately high.
In Machapuchre Rural Municipality voting was peaceful. Senior citizens, sick people, and disabled voters were given first priority, while voters who needed assistance with the ballot were able to be helped by their family members, although the polling centre did not ask to see proof of relationship in such cases. Women were present in larger numbers than men.
Among the almost 1000 voters registered in the unit, three voters returned from the polling station because their names were not on the voter roll. One of them had a voter ID card, while the other two claimed to have voted in the previous election.
One person was not allowed to cast a vote despite proper identification, and being on the the voter list.
Problems in supervision
On polling day, election observers can choose to supervise one polling place throughout the voting process, or visit more than one polling station to make a comparative study.
This time, however, the Election Commission tried to enforce the rule of staying in one polling station all day, but local election officers encouraged observers to make rounds of multiple polling stations.
Observers were barred from visiting some polling stations and counting stations, for which both the staff who did not understand the essence of election observation and the Election Commission who did not adequately explain it are to blame.
If observers are barred from supervising election-related activities, then there is no point in assigning observers at all.
There have also been some weaknesses on the part of observers. Sine failed to maintain proper distance with voters in many polling places, behaving like party representatives instead of election representatives.
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While it was customary to seal the ballot box with lacquer in the past, boxes are now sealed with numbered plastic. However, election officials were pressured by party representatives to the ballot boxes in white cloth and stamping the cloth with lacquer as in the past.
The Commission ordered a ban on vehicular movement during the election to prevent voters from casting their ballots from more than one polling place, which happened during the 2017 election.
Since the voter list includes photographs of voters, however, it is impossible for anyone to cast votes from more than one station. The decision was also considered reasonable for security purposes, but it prevented many from getting to polling stations.
Challenges to the Election Commission
Many steps taken by the Election Commission seemed ad hoc, in part because of the limited time and resources available.
But the government, the Commission as well as the media and the civil society as a whole seems to only focus on election day when they should be paying attention to the entire process.
It is not a good sign for a democratic system when police presence is more dominant in polling stations than election officials. While observing the 2017 elections in Liberia, a country that had just emerged from a period of conflict, I noticed that the police and military presence at polling stations was negligible.
Ballot counting was also faster and more streamlined. Nepal has much to learn from Liberia.
Shekhar Parajuli is a researcher. Adapted from the Nepali original by Shristi Karki.
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