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Electoral System and Election Management in Nepal

Dev Raj Dahal


Introduction

A free and fair election brings the micro-institutions of governance closer to the people. People as stakeholders of democracy are subject to the authority of elected leadership and, therefore, can claim to share direct control over them. Law, administration and punishment pale into insignificance if civic education of citizens, their awareness about fundamental rights and duties and participation that set the context for fair elections go amiss. Certain principles, such as freedom of speech, organization, press and the secret ballot, might be considered essential at universal level, but the details of the electoral process must incorporate native reality. Each country has its own mechanism of elections reflecting the functional requirement of that nation-state and people.

Election basically reflects three things: weight of public opinion, consideration of popular interest and broad-based representation of social, economic and political concerns of citizens. Election has other vital purposes too, such as selecting leaders, providing legitimacy to governance and making the government accountable to the electorates. Has the Nepali election system provided the people a sense of citizenship that transcend all sort of primordial considerations, for example, age, caste, class, gender, ethnic and geographic origins? Or, does it constitute the reinforcement of these considerations? Does it serve an inclusive process or excite exclusionary aspirations? This article deals mainly with three aspects: electoral system of Nepal; election management process, including the role of Election Commission, and reforms in some ground rules for conducting free and fair elections as a basis of good governance.

The political turmoil that has seen tumbling down seven governments since 1990 is the result of obnoxious rivalries among the country's political parties or the often unscrupulous, self-serving game of political leaders. In contrast, the most crucial are profound political changes taking place in thousands of villages where most of the nation's 23 million people live and vote. The low caste Dalits, women, poor and illiterate-who were in the fringe of the nation's political life are organizing into groups, exerting pressure in political parties, interest groups and civil societies. Since the restoration of multiparty democracy the Nepali electorates have exercised their political choice in national elections three times-1991, 1994 and 1999 and have got valuable experiences in two local elections. The conceptions of ideologies previously espoused by various political parties are also disclosed in actual practice. So do their utopias which too failed to stabilize the political order as majority of citizens daily encounter false consciousness.

The political process, however, reveals a clash between the principles of political equality, formal rights and statuses expressed into "one person, one vote" and the condition of widening inequality in the standards of living of majority of people. The condition of majority of population falling into poverty trap shows a gap between high idealism and hard cynicism, an agonizing chasm of the emptiness of political life. Institutionalization of familism, elitism and patrimonialism as ascriptive rights are restraining the process of social transformation and the role of policy in addressing poverty, inequality and dependency. In such a condition the "sovereign" people constitute nothing significant but only an object of political space in which leadership struggle for political power and wealth. In this case, sovereignty does not become national and the constitutionalization of society becomes only theoretical. Is it because of the inadequacy of electoral system of Nepal or the nature of political culture? Does Nepal's election system continue to stand for the democratic aspirations of the people they struggled for? Or, there is a defect in the constitutional system which purports to lay down the framework of democratic governance but legitimizes the raison d'être of status quo? Constitutional theorists argue that legitimacy of the regime must be renewed in each generation so that future generation continue to hold faith in the polity.

Election System: Choices and Challenges

The belief that popular consent legitimates the government to govern has been central until twentieth-century liberal democracy held sway. Liberal democracy relied on periodic election as a mechanism of "social contract" and formed a basis for political authority whereby individual voters express their political preferences and legitimize the government to enact laws and regulate social, economic and political life of the people. Social contract rests, and rightly so, on meeting the conditions of material progress, nationalism and consciousness of modernity, all expose the citizens to self-realization. The liberal and constitutional tradition of politics equally attempted to civilianize the operations of political power by structuring the government on the consent of governed and by freeing the citizens from succumbing to the system's survival imperative. Free and fair election draws the legitimacy to political life through citizens' freedom and rights including political participation from the bottom-up.

For the citizens election is, therefore, an educative process because they exercise their constitutional rights and duties. To say differently, it is a socialization process on the political culture of the nation and an understanding of how rights of an individual change at different age levels - the childhood (child rights), youth (at 16 years of age an individual is entitled to citizenship rights and is made aware of the state, constitution and respect for rule of law), adulthood (at 18 years of age citizens acquire right to vote) 21 years of age (right to become candidate for local governance institutions), at 25 years of age (right to become candidates for House of Representatives), at 35 years of age (citizens are entitled to contest for Upper House of Parliament) and old age social security and so on. In order to become responsible citizen, one has to adopt appropriate values, which requires long socialization process of family, educational institutions, local self-governance, professional associations, civil society and the agencies of mass communication. The institutional bases of modern formal rights, however, couples with both procedural (framework of action) and substantive (content to be realized) rights and, consequently, demands the deconstruction of the primacy of primordiality and building of a counter-hegemony politics.

Thus election is also a matter of relationship between the state and different sets of citizenship and the expansion of citizenship from the social to political sphere. The political meaning of the citizenship involves the right to participate in the exercise of political power. Article 45 of the Constitution of the Kingdom of Nepal 1990 provides direct elections by way of universal adult franchise based on "one person one vote" and secret ballots. The constitution settled for a simple majority (which is also called first-past-the-post or plurality) system of election for 205-member Pratinidhi Sabha (Lower House of Parliament). Considering population density and geographical size, Nepal is divided into 205 single member constituencies, each of which elects one member of parliament (MP). Citizens attending 18 years of age and above directly elect their MP for a term of five years.

In a single-member-constituency with plurality system, the winner in each constituency is the candidate with the most votes, even if this is less than fifty percent. As a result, when voting percentage of the majority party in parliament is counted it may not cross fifty percent of popular votes but it legitimately forms the government. This model of electoral politics, commonly exercised in India, Canada, the UK, the USA and New Zealand, is called winner-take-all. The purpose of election is to enable the voters to understand that their leaders are not part of the natural order of things, but rather the result of historical and socially produced forces that can be changed by electoral politics. Voting thus links democratic theory into practice and the voters become legislators in their own way. If democracy is transformed into a zero-sum game, the loser will not have any stake in the democratic process and, consequently, institutionalizing democracy as a way of life suffers irreparable losses.

The first-past-the-post plurality system has certain peculiarities. For example, Nepali Congress (NC) party which had comfortable majority of seats in the parliament in 1991 elections (110 seats) had only 39.5 percent of popular votes. But it formed the government. In 1994 mid-term elections, NC had lesser number of seats (83) than the Communist Party of Nepal Unified-Marxist-Leninist (CPN-UML) (88) but it garnered higher percentage in popular votes- 33.4 percent than the CPN-UML 30.92 percent but the latter formed the government. In 1999 election, two national political parties, Communist Party of Nepal (Marxist-Leninist) and Rastriya Prajatantra Party (Chand) could not send any member in the parliament. This suggests that representation in parliament does not always accurately reflect the popular support which a party may enjoy.

The first-past-the-post system also acts against the representation of smaller parties, such as Rastriya Prajatantra Party (RPP) which in 1994 election scored 17. 93 percent of votes had only 20 MPs, just 9.76 percent of the total. The same holds true to Nepal Sadbhavan Party (NSP). Evidently, one can see a gap and inconsistency between the percentage of seats scored by parties and the percentage of popular votes. One implausible consequence of this system for Nepal is that political parties have more preference for pooling seats rather than pooling votes. How can this system then accommodate minority concerns and protect the system from the hegemony of dominant parties? Obviously, this cannot be answered right away. Certain weaknesses of this system can be rectified by proportional representation which has worked best in Sweden, Norway and the Netherlands.

If political competition is not meant to press the minority and the weaker sections of society into margin, all those who participate in the elections- whether they win or lose-must respect each other and share each other's concern. This is the way democratic regime accords space for legitimate political opposition as a natural element in the political life of the nation. But, in Nepal, as parliamentary opposition received less respect, there are extra-parliamentary, extra-constitutional and anti-systemic oppositions that represent a serious challenge to the integrity of the power of current establishment, even besetting convulsion to multi-party dispensation itself.

In the 60-member Rastriya Sabha (Upper House), the king nominates 10 persons of highest reputation who have rendered valuable service in various walks of life. Thirty-five member including three women are elected by a system of proportional representation by means of single transferable vote by Pratinidhi Sabha members while the remaining fifteen members, three from each development region, are elected on the basis of the system of single transferable vote by an electoral college consisting of elected authorities of Village Development Committee (VDC), municipality and District Development Committee (DDC). The term of office is six years. Election for DDC is conducted by an electoral college comprising elected authorities of VDCs and municipalities while all the adult citizens directly elect ward assembly members and VDC and municipality authorities. The term of their office is five years.

As the system of election is a majoritarian one it has multiple handicaps in political representation, such as under-representation of minorities and inadequate representation of women and social groups in the parliament. Political parties barely meet the five percent of quota seat constitutionally allocated for women candidates. Only proportional representation can constitute a model of personal representation between the voters and their representatives. For the consolidation of participatory democracy, a proportional system of representation is more appropriate. The system of proportional representation operates by giving parties seats in the parliament on the basis of proportion of the total popular vote each political party has received. Proportional representation system is equally desirable because it brings more voices to the parliament and puts greater reward on consensual politics.

One paradox of Nepal's electoral system, however, is this: plurality system works best where there are only two dominant parties crystallized on the basis of class and party competition basically represents a democratic version of class struggle. Nepali political parties can be conveniently labeled as "catch-all" parties originated from political movement. In a multi-party polity proportional representation is the best as it provides guarantee to minority representation. But it would most likely produce legislative fragmentation and weak, unstable and often shifting coalition governments. The segmented political culture of Nepal has so far served as both cause and consequence of political instability.

Given the weakness of representation associated with Nepal's current model of first-past-the-post system, should Nepal then adopt an absolute majority system being practiced in France? In this system winner has to achieve just over the half the popular votes of total (50 percent+1). If the election fails to produce this, a second election is held a week later in which only candidates gaining more than 12.5 percent in the first election participate. In the second election, French use the principle of plurality method. This system has inherent propensity to cause political stalemate in which no party can win absolute majority. Likewise, second election is very time consuming, costly and cumbersome for attracting the ordinary voters.

Or, should Nepal follow German model of proportional representation? In this model, each voter has two votes. One vote to the candidates of parties in the single-member constituency in which a candidate having the plurality of votes in the electoral district wins. The second vote goes to the party list for 656-member Bundestag. The second vote determines how many representatives will be send from each party to the Bundestag on the basis of proportionality. The election law stipulates that only parties gaining at least five percent of popular votes or at least three constituency seats can be represented in parliament. (Nohlen, 1996:84) This five percent barrier is, however, waived in the case of national minorities.

There is no difference in status between two different types of MPs. Members of the Bundestag are not expected to involve in constituency work as in Nepal and India. It is the responsibility of local government institutions and provincial assemblies. Time has come to rethink over the suitability of Nepal's electoral system rooted in its social contexts and provide much-needed corrections in the irrationality plaguing the representation process. Much of the debate on electoral reform in Nepal is an endeavor to strike a balance between the need for constituency representation and the desire for proportionality in electoral outcomes.

Election Management Process

Legislative Measures

Electoral management process begins from the day of voters' list preparation. Electoral laws provide for only one electoral roll system in the country which is published prior to the election. This provides them the chance to register claims for inclusion of genuine voters' name and exclusion of those non-voters. The EC updates voter's list every year. Several acts and laws govern the election management process, such as Parliament has passed the Election Commission Act 1990, Member of the House of Representatives Election Act 1990, Election Constituencies Delimitation Act 1990, Election Offense and Punishment Act 1990, Local Bodies Election Process Act 1991, the Voters Identity Provision Act 1997 and Anti-Defection Act 1997. These acts are the important legislative instruments in terms of governing election process.

There is a provision for the establishment of Special Election Court to deal with electoral offenses under Election Offense and Punishment Act 1990. "An appeal against the decision of the Returning Officer and the Election Commission may be filed in the election tribunal headed by a judge. The tribunal is to be formed by the government on the advise of Election Commission. (EC, 1995:16) These are essential safeguards to prevent political interference and electoral fraud but by no means sufficient to ensure genuine representativeness. Management of free and fair elections involves responsible role of political parties, candidates, party cadres, voters and all the stakeholders of democracy. Adequate availability of finance, administrative personnel, proper security and logistical support to the EC is must. Table 1 explains polling centers, sub-centers and election personnel.

Table 1

Year Polling Center Polling Sub-Centers Election Personnel
1991 8,225 6,564 62,881
1994 7,412 8,191 74,473
1999 6,821 - 59,490

The very surprising and a little sad decline in polling centers owing to security reasons, despite vastly increased new electorates, and shifts in location at the adversity of climate, distance factor and difficult geographical terrain do not augur well for voters' participation in elections. Any change or reduction in these matters must be done with the consent of all the parties affected.

Autonomy of Election Commission

Like judiciary, constitution provides certain level of autonomy to the EC from the executive. But, in matters of personnel and finance it is dependent on the government. As the unprecedented electoral operation is entrusted with Election Commission, supported by the whole machinery of administration throughout constituencies, maintaining the autonomy and effectiveness of election commission for the fairness of election is no small feat. The Chief Election Commissioner including all the five election commissioners is appointed by the king on the recommendation of the Constitutional Council with the mandate to "conduct, supervise, direct and control the elections to parliament and local bodies." These Commissioners may be removed from their office by an impeachment of two-thirds member of the lower house of parliament which, in fact, is cumbersome process. Integrity of the professionalism of the persons involved in conducting elections can help muster trust and confidence of electorates on Election Commission (EC).

In this context, the EC requires full authority and control of the security forces and election officers on election duty. Likewise, the election management process, including the functioning of election commissioners, must be transparent to the political parties and closely monitored by media and civil society. Nepali election commissioners, however, argue for multi-disciplinary team within the EC so that they can address every electoral issue coming to the fore. Other area is the financial autonomy and the authority to recruit election officials at the EC secretariat, especially to discourage the government's tendency to transfer skilled personnel to other department and offices. Public confidence in the fairness of EC leads the public to abandon radical aspirations and acquiesce to the maintenance of the system. The edifice of the autonomy of EC rests on the foundations of the constitutional arrangements and its operation can be understood only within the context of the larger political culture.

Electoral system must reflect social, economic and geographical realities of the nation.

The main goals of election must be to ensure the entire franchise workable which means paying attention to all the strata of people. One has to ponder what Nepal's legal system looks like to the deprived minorities especially Dalits, women, bonded labor, illiterate, poor and powerless sections of society in terms of their rights. This is especially important in Nepal where caste and class system is still encrusted with hereditary privilege, custom and legal rights- all are derived from the earlier tradition of feudalism. As this is less immune from political influence and pressure because of intractable barriers-political, economic and social-embedded in the structure of society it, by implication, deconstructs their modern visions of progress, inclusion and identity. How to make them critical constituencies in the dynamism of democratic process? Does entrenched gender inequalities help the male domination of political representation? With the introduction of local governance act, female representation to grassroots institutions increased to about 19 percent and gender movement has helped to improve their position in currently held national election as 12 women are elected for the House of Representatives. The question is: How many ethnic groups are represented in the House and how many of them are aware of their responsibilities for the fate of the nation? At a time when attractiveness to Upper House is declining, the Lower House must reflect the mosaic of national society.

Marxist and ethnic-based parties generally believe that the national legal system is inherently biased in favor of the dominant classes of society and demand for the distribution of power and wealth. The painful question is: how political authority is expanded to enable electoral system to create a competitive arena for the distribution of national resources and access to education, employment, health, land and credit in a condition of national economic inertia? Uneven representation of social strata of people leads to an uneven level of attachment to the symbols of national identity and political community.

The other matter of concern is geographical diversity, scattered settlement in the high hills, the mountain and remote areas with little access to transportation and communication thus making voters' access to registration and then to polling centers difficult. Likewise, voter registration should be a door to door census. This is the way to maximize voter's efficacy and minimize invalid voting turn out which hovers around 5 percent on average. Role of political parties in nominating appropriate candidates is positively correlated with representativeness of people and consolidating the social base of democracy.

One positive point of Nepal's social mosaic is the very multiplicity of its 62 distinct ethnic groups that provides a certain deterrence against civilian strife. It has some weaknesses, too, for example, in reconciling the rule of majority with the rights of social and ethnic minorities. Will it lead to democratic distemper reflecting sharply the problems of governability? Or, will there be the return to the stability of authoritarian leadership which the people rejected in 1990? After bowling along 10 years of increasing euphoria, political situating is overheating the ethnic and political minorities, Dalits, and radical parties who are demanding the participatory politics, whose consequences seem deep and certain. How can anyone claiming to believe in democratic values fail to ask why national political order has not been arranged so as to ensure equity for all?

Civic culture that slumbered in the society under the enforced culture of silence found amazing amount of strength in social movement providing critical knowledge for social self-awareness and rational behavior: critical in the ordinary sense that voters are not taken for granted and rational because they are seeking rationality from the candidates why do they vote for a particular candidate. Conception of parliamentary election is historically rooted in commitments to legislate social transformation through collective action rather than just composing "governmental power" for sustaining the status quo.

Civic Competence of Voters

Is the political system in harmony with representativeness? Does the electoral system make citizens approach the political system? Do both systems provide the voters self-constitution and self-organization or just mean to subject them to the realities of power struggle? One can safely assert that voting rights are not something hopelessly legalistic, it is civic, political and practical whose awareness among the Nepali voters is wretchedly superficial and low. Mere formalization of rights makes voters bitter, skeptical, passive and ultimately apathetic. In other words, they end up precisely which the democratic regime does not want them to be. Voter education should constitute a big part of Nepal's elections as the bulk of the electorate is participating for the first time and many simply do not know the meaning of voting at all. How is the message of election put forward? How do people know their choices? Manifestoes of political parties, gluttonous speeches of candidates, directives, norms and orders reflect only one aspect of the world of politics. The web of civic life consists of dense network of citizens.

This does not prevent vote buying and selling, character assassination of candidates, belittling national sensitiveness, social harmony and decent voting behavior which indicates the abdication of one's own reason, conscience and civic responsibility unless voters themselves participate in defining and creating world-views. Their ability in doing so places them in a position to make political decisions with sufficient bearing for the nation and people. What are the foundations of civic obedience? Civic knowledge and skills. The educational process should lead to discovery, not indoctrination; insight, not facts and data; and engagements, not just interest. It should help challenge outmoded values and assumptions and consciously induce them to involve in the political process.

Preparation of youth for participatory democracy requires continuous discourses focusing on the acquisition of civic knowledge and voting skills to engage and act on important public issues and challenge the fundamental problems in Nepali political and economic system, such as corruption, cronyism, opaque politics and economics and squandering of development funds in unproductive activities. Civic competence of citizens sets out what are the rights of citizens, what they may do and what they may not do as well as to move into the sphere of imagination, self-experience, reflection and will to sovereignty. It is here citizens develop a sense of trust in political authority and facilitate their engagements in politics.

The basic objective of civic education is to bring activities of parliament closer to the people. Nepalis must establish the habit of active citizenship through educative means, that is, being players, not spectators, and assume personal commitment and responsibility for what is going on in their communities, localities and the nation-state. Unfortunately, there is woeful absence of civic education by schools, by the press and perhaps by parents which speaks a lot about "non-voting" behavior of citizens. In this sense, adequate civic competence is essential because it helps to revolt against the normalizing function of traditional politics and stages a dialectical play between democratic theory and real-politik.

In Nepal so far the state supports political parties in giving space in the state-run television and radio, provides information on different aspects of election and some knowledge and information about the techniques of voting. But it does not put national problematic debate in an analytical context and stimulate thinking on alternative world-view to democratic participation.

Neutrality of electoral officers and security personnel

Security is the supreme social concept of political community, the link of individual citizens to a sphere in which they realize their political life with other members of civil society. There is a need to reconsider over election program, constitutional and legal provisions and Acts regarding People's Representatives, Regulations and Procedures. Constitutional and institutional arrangements backed by "right to information" affect the ability of majority of citizens to ensure effective representation. The great test of democracy is the greatest test of Nepali bureaucracy and the EC in management, registration, voting and counting the results. The notion of neutrality requires attention to established knowledge-knowledge in the context of power relations and cultural values. The EC appoints judge or official from judicial service as Election Officer in each constituency to conduct national election. A government or semi-government officer is appointed as the returning officer for each constituency and polling officer for a polling station. While local election is conducted by Chief District Officer (CDO). The Chief Election Commissioner asserts that "compared to previous elections there has been an erosion in the capability of administrative machinery, sense of accountability and discipline in this election." (Shah, 1999: 4)

Absolute transparency of election process


In order to attract public confidence, the EC's activities must be transparent. One way of maintaining transparency is by developing the access of media, civil society and election observation groups to its activities while the other is developing all party consensus to its initiatives and still the other is deputing polling agents of the parties in overseeing the impartiality of voting, counting and declaring results. Unofficial channels often reveal the views of disturbances in polling stations, voters disenfranchisement and frustration striking grievously at the democratic process. Can this election provide sufficient credibility to the polity? Will the new parliament have sufficient integrity as a separate branch of the government for the checks and balances role? Will it be able to address and articulate public grievances?

Cutting the costs of elections must be done in such a way that it would not affect the credibility and efficiency of election management bodies. Election expenses incurred by candidates are also closely related to the transparency of election. Declining per capita income of citizens while rising cost of election expenditure have made the poor not only difficult to contest but also became onerous political exercise to those without the necessities of life and starving themselves. How can election become competitive when there are uneven natural endowment among candidates and economic liberalization of successive governments having benefited the rich ran counter to democratization process? By trespassing any consideration of constitutional context within which economic policies have to operate and putting such consideration out of court's decision, liberalization only expected to protect the rich against the poor. And, in the process, it is more concretely threatening multiparty dispensation. How many times Nepali citizens have to vote to live as citizens in a state that evokes restless aspirations yet denies majority of them their right to live with pride and dignity?

Declaration of assets by elected representatives, audit of party funds and campaign financing of candidates must be sought so that candidates do not seek the assistance of private interest groups and allow them to influence public policy. Whether the state funding of election help establishe the integrity of public life by minimizing corruption and malpractice? Surely not. The cost of politics outstrips election expenses. The implications of this are: representatives will be elected on the basis of spending more than stipulated ceiling ( depending on the electoral strength of constituencies, the EC has categorized four different ceilings on election expenses: the first category has Rs. 275,000; second Rs. 253,000; third Rs. 165,000 and the last one Rs.115,000) and those elected on the basis of heavy monetary investment will tend to indulge on corruption, criminalization, party defection and ultimately serve a cause for governmental instability.

Cost reduction in election, therefore, needs to be considered in Nepal to make electoral democracy sustainable as majority of the people live below absolute poverty line. Likewise, state funding of elections is a required reform to neutralize the rich candidates win over their financially poor contestants as well as to place all candidates on a par with regard to legitimate means of expenditure. This calls for the abrogation of constituency development fund given to all the members of parliament as it fosters patronage politics. The fund should flow through local government agencies.

Registration of Political Parties

Political parties are the pivots of multi-party democracy and, therefore, Nepali constitution has made them "inviolable," mandated them for registration with the EC, sought for their transparency and democratic behavior. Ironically, however, "politics in Nepal is still based on personality than institutions; the leadership roles within the government and parties are personalized and lack accountability, and when crises accumulate due to the failure of institutions and leaders, the elected representatives including the leaders of government find themselves stuck with the environment. Such functional and behavioral crises severely hinder the process of institutionalization and legitimization in the country." (Baral and Rose, 1998:213).

The EC demands four conditions to be fulfilled by the national political parties for registration: they must be democratic; there should be periodic election of office bearers within five years; provide five percent of women candidates for the election of the House of Representatives and have scored three percent of popular votes in the election of House of Representatives. Only those parties are entitled to get uniform national symbols for their candidates which fulfills the above criteria. Those who do not meet these criteria and independent candidates are given free symbols.

Moreover, what is still required in the political parties is their democratic approach in candidate selection process which help devolve choices to the local people to select their representatives. Although constitution bars those parties formed on the basis of regional, ethnic, religious and communal consideration but some of such parties are registered within the EC and there are many small ideologically radical and single issue parties which are not registered but are operating in the national scene. The problem for the EC is how to bring them to constitutional domain. Alternatively, can Nepal emulate democratic sentiment of German Basic Law that outlaws the registration of anti-democratic parties?

Stability of democracy needs a strong sense of social contract among all the stakeholders, something on which society sticks to it strongly and less equivocally. As past trends are any reliable guide, one the one hand pragmatic mass political parties run by professional machines have exonerated their cadres from all forms of personal responsibility. On the other hand, the emergence of cacophonous multiplicity of smaller parties and candidates with their own identities and interests in holding power by making and breaking the governments will continue to inspire governmental instability in the future. Political parties are vertical institutions which provide regular mediation and communication between bottom and top of society, between elite and the mass and regular contact between political parties and electorates. In Nepal, due to a lack of well-developed physical infrastructure and accountable leadership, such contacts are effectively limited. As the saying goes, yatha raja, tatha praja-as is the king , so are the people.

But when parties in government parade free markets, free trade and downsizing of state it seriously affect upon employment, wages and voters security. They then do not connect ordinary citizens to the country's ruling elite. "Democracy requires a strong national identity, but liberalism may make it increasingly difficult to create one." (Cooper, 1999:11) No democracy can last without the attainment of the quality of life for people. A political system based on election must seek the integrity of person contesting for members of parliament. The candidates fall over each other competing for the biggest promises. The likely failure of these promises fuels cynicism about politics, which in the long run gnaws the base of multi-party democracy. Table 2 explains the electoral participation of political parties:

Table 2

Year Parties Registered Parties Contesting Candidates Registered Voters Voting Turnout
1991 44 20 1,345 1,11,91,777 65.15
1994 65 24 1,442 1,21,32,571 61.86
1999 100 41 2,224 1,35,18,839 67

There are some positive trends, however, especially an increase in party membership, but not voting turn out which shows a declining trend from 65 percent in 1991 to 62 percent in 1994. So understanding the causes of the decline is important and should stimulate more comparative investigation whether it is causing political decay or not. What is worrying is: does low turnout tend to become cumulative? Successive national governments have often failed to deliver to the poor the most basic services, such as drinking water, education, health care as well as sound economy to escape from poverty which were promised to them by candidates during elections. The press and the opposition politicians often highlighted that the incumbent government cannot do anything right. In this context, how can citizens judge which candidate to trust?

Political parties, candidates, and voters strictly obey the election code of conduct.

During elections, the exercise of power circulates through this code of conduct as blood flows through veins. The Election Code of Conduct broadly relates to the conduct of election campaign, funding of political parties, financial ceiling fixed to candidates, norms about broadcasting of election news, etc. Strict adherence to the election code of conduct does not automatically ensure free and fair elections unless all the people believe in a high democratic value of election and help renewing and reforming the workings of politics. As electoral process rests on citizen participation, their mobilization and security should be borne by the volunteers of political parties with government officials, police and army just monitoring them as external stakeholders. "Keeping in view the past experiences, one monitoring officer was deputed for each constituency and in every district as accountant from Accountant General's Office was deputed to check the accounts being maintained by every candidate. Special teams consisting of Joint Secretary level officers were deputed to several areas for monitoring the observance of the Code of Conduct." (Mishra, 1999:4) Democracy requires active and eloquent participation and shared responsibility, not cynicism and resignation of voters. Electoral pessimism is more likely caused by oral juggling of the political class, such as lies, libels and character assassinations of despicable forms and a whole industry of pollsters and advertising wizards who exercise their art of propaganda, psychological manipulation and produce grotesquely misleading results. While they generally denigrate code of conduct they nevertheless continue to invoke it whenever they want to justify their actions.

As average voters are illiterate and poor, they cast ballots based on the images born of a multitude of impulses, campaign tactics and image shaping of candidates than on careful examination of underlying issues and substance. Rational voting does not flourish when voter's life goes from bad to worse. And negative element in politics is more powerful than positive one as it feeds an atmosphere of paranoia. This might not matter for the short-run but over long periods, devaluation of government could undercut the future of democratic governance. Similarly, too much party-mindedness has suppressed the individuality of professionals.

Crisis in performance has led to the erosion of public faith in leaders leading to cynicism, apathy and disillusionment. The system of sharing spoils of corruption is nursing the grievances of commoners against the polity as post-election period allowed the voters to evaluate the delivery of public good against per-election promises of candidates and parties. The pertinence and survival of multi-party polity largely depend on the support of a broadly-based and reasonably informed electorate. Their collective ignorance about public affairs leads to the victory of inappropriate representative whose behavior, in turn, lessens public trust in the democracy itself. The evidence of ignorance in the electorates is evidence of the failure of press and party schools. It is a problem in democratic life-a problem caused by the inability of media to socialize the electorates and to protect their right to information as a core of the governing process.

Election Observation

In recently-held election there were 52 international election observation members and 1518 national observers. The task of election observation is to monitor and report independently and precisely on the conduct of the election, not just an act of voting but entire electoral environment and the state of democracy. As the intrinsic purpose of election is to legislate political change for the establishment of civic political culture, observing election means observing the direction of democracy and its consolidation process. The criteria of involving election observers, their professional skills and integrity, the ranges of methodologies they employ for observation are crucial. In a transition country where the establishment and application of due process of law become a problem, the presence of international observers provide some kind of credibility to the election.

Though international observation teams are welcomed in Nepal, the general criticisms directed to them are: urban focus, courtesy bias, inability to perceive native style of electoral malpractice and observing only the act of voting rather than observing the entire electoral process. Political biases and conflicting reports are the general problems associated with domestic observers. If these shortcomings are removed, election observation system will have positive bearing on the conduct of election. Similarly, election observation group should also monitor whether the spirits of the constitution are violated by political parties and individual candidates or not. It is the constitution that articulates the tangible philosophy and shapes political life.

Areas requiring reforms

There are many positive features in Nepal's electoral participation, for example, there is phenomenal growth in the number of candidates, voting percentages in male and female as well as rural and urban are narrowing and greater participation is reflected not just in the act of voting but also in the electoral processes. Still, there are many areas that require necessary reform. They are:

  • One crucial area of reform lies in preparing voter's list. The cases of disenfranchisement of voters, ID cards not tallying voter's list, residency requirement depriving homeless and rural people working in urban areas, distance factor especially in hills and mountains, tendencies of major parties to violate the code of conduct, especially indulging in violence, manipulating media, involving in recruitment and transfer of personnel relating to security and law and order, misuse of finance, etc. were grievous.
  • Leaders of smaller parties often claim that conducting election in two or more phases militates against their candidates' electoral prospects as big parties have larger resources -cadres, media, finance, publicity, logistics, etc. to mobilize. If these smaller parties perceive manipulation in election by the larger parties, they might resort to extra-constitutional means to realize their goals. Election news of the EC indicates that cadres of dominant ruling parties were involved in violence, arson and pillage of ballot boxes. Their tug of struggle for power had torn the voters under the hot sun from their voting rights and submitted to fear psychosis and despair. There are also reporting of fake, proxy, under age, absentee, coercive, enticed and multiple voting and even anti-voting campaigns of Maoist party. Monitoring of campaign activities is especially important to discourage the possibility of violence, violation of election code of conduct and negative behavior.
  • One critical psychological variable in Nepal's voting behavior is "band-wagon effect," voting those candidates and parties who have a chance of winning. In this context, declaring somebody as future prime minister and mobilizing public opinion accordingly does not augur well. So with multiple candidacy of party chiefs which goes against the question of representation. Upon winning from more than one constituency they resign form one and betray the voters of that constituency.
  • Where voting turnout is low, the EC, media, civil society and NGOs should play crucial role in civic education and voting skills of the electorates. A vibrant civil society is instrumental in promoting minorities, women and Dalits' participation in the electoral and political process.
  • Delimitation of constituency should be done in such a way that minorities have the chance of political representation.
  • Political parties and independent candidates must not be allowed to resort to unconstitutional means and slogans to woo the voters which they cannot fulfill even after they win election. Radicalization of election environment either by spreading hatred or promising to offer moon and stars to the voters is less propitious for post-election democratic stability. Likewise, political parties should not try to appropriate power that does not belong to them by reason of democratic propriety.
  • Reducing campaign cost has become essential as majority of people of Nepal are below absolute poverty line. Monitoring and reporting of the expenditure of campaign have become important to curb the role of money in politics and set legal and social control over it. The accounting of election expenses should form a part of legislation as also the code of conduct for the political parties and independent candidates.
  • Strengthening of partnership among the EC, the judiciary, watchdog agencies, especially media and civil society to monitor the violation of code of conduct has become important. At the same time these bodies can help "voluntary participation and spontaneous initiative outside the political establishment keeping the democratic spirit alive and balancing out, as a reassuring anarchy, the entrenched leadership of the experts, politicians and bureaucrats." (Peters, 1991:5)

    Disqualification of the candidature found in criminal offenses, law-breakers and anti-social elements must be enforced in true faith. This is the way to uphold the rule of law, protect politics from criminals and overcome citizens from being alienated and disaffected with the way power is being exercised at the central level. Party tickets should be given through a democratic mechanism, that is, taking into account the suggestions of local party offices, than personal preference of central leaders. This strengthens the process of representativeness and accountability and minimizes the gap between the votes and the voters.
  • The government entrusted to conduct election should not make any important appointment, transfer and promotion of public officers, should not make major policy decisions and commit the country to financial expenditure unless situation of grave emergency arises.
  • As the abuse of constitutional checks and balances swells to something appalling condition, reforms are required to put constitutional bodies in proper perspective. Democracy is a means of limiting government, preventing it from encroaching human values and enforcing political discipline among the stakeholders.

References

  • Baral, Lok Raj and Leo E. Rose. 1998. "Democratization and the Crisis of Governance in Nepal," eds. Subrata K. Mitra and Dietmar Rothermund. Legitimacy and Conflict in South Asia. New Delhi: Manohar Publishers.
  • Cooper, Robert. 1999. "Integration and Disintegration," Journal of Democracy, Vol. 10, No.1, January.
  • Dahal, Dev Raj 1997. Challenges to Good Governance in Nepal a report submitted to International Institute for Electoral and Democratic Assistance, Stockholm, Sweden, October 2.
  • Election Commission, 1995. Electoral Process in Nepal, Kathmandu: EC.
    International IDEA, 1997. Consolidating Democracy in Nepal. Stockholm: International IDEA.
  • NESAC. 1998. Nepal: Human Development Report 1998. Kathmandu: Nepal South Asian Center.
  • Mishra, Birendra P. 1999. "Elections '99: Yet Another Milestone," The Kathmandu Post, June 29.
  • Nohlen, Dieter. 1996. Elections and Electoral System. Delhi: Macmillan, India Ltd.
  • Peters, Werner. 1991. Society on the Run. New York: M. E. Sharpe.
    • Shaha, Bishnu Pratap. 1998. "Nirbachan Pranali Ra Loktantrako Sudridhikaran," (Electoral System and the Consolidation of Democracy) paper presented at a seminar on Politics of Consensus and Implementation of Constitution, organized by NCCS in cooperation with FES, November 12, 1998, Kathmandu.
    • 1998. "Sambaidhanik Nikayaharuko Sudridhikaran, Samasys Ra Samadhan," (Consolidation of Constitutional Organs: Problems and Solutions), paper presented at a seminar organized by National Democratic Institute, Kathmandu, November 29.
    • 1999. "Yo Patak Prashan Yantrama Dachhata, Jimmebariko Bhavana Ra Anushashanko Rhash Bhayeko Payiyo" (An erosion in the administrative capacity, sense of accountability and discipline was found this time."Ghatana Ra Bichar, May 26.

 
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