Forgotten commitment by political partiesThe law says that there should be at least one-third women at party committees at all levels.
The Nepali Congress general convention brings to an end a season of general conventions of political parties. With general elections just around the corner. This also seems like a season of protests. The media is brimming with debates over protests at the judiciary, Ruby Khan’s march for justice and dozens of other issues which is a good sign for democracy. Many young faces and women are winning in the run-up to the general conventions of major parties which is heartening. However, there is one timely issue that has not garnered much attention. My fear is that if it does not happen during this season of general conventions, an opportunity will be lost until the next general convention.
Much before the CPN-UML and the CPN (Maoist Centre) unified to form the Nepal Communist Party, the UML’s articles of association had a progressive provision committing to have at least one-third women at all levels of their party committees. However, when the above two parties unified to form the Nepal Communist Party to form a majority government, they did away with the commitment in their interim memorandum of association. That was a regressive step which went almost unnoticed.
However, the contents of this commitment had already crept into the Political Party Act 2017 in the form of its Section 15 (4) relating to organisational structure. It has an interesting background to it. Among the many good practices in Nepal, there is one important good practice that few know about. The drafting of all electoral Draft Bills is initiated from the Election Commission itself, and the wisdom and institutional memory of each election conducted in the past finds its way into the draft. The draft then goes to the Law Ministry for vetting via the line ministry, which is the Home Ministry in the case of the Election Commission.
The substance of the draft prepared by Election Commission is not to be tampered with until it is brought to the parliamentary State Affairs Committee for discussion. But the case is often not so, and many propositions for electoral reforms disappear before the Draft Bill reaches the parliamentary committee. Now that is another story. However, Section 15 (4) of the Political Party Act 2017, fortunately remained intact in this voyage, the same as it was proposed by the Election Commission. This section related to organisation of a political party clearly says. “Parties have to provide for at least one-third women at party committees at all levels.”
Post this act, many parties unified, split and new ones also got registered. The Election Commission tried to ensure that the provisions of the law were followed, democratic values and practices consolidated and parties remained disciplined, sometimes by mediating, and sometimes by giving decisions as a quasi-judicial body as best as it could. The Election Commission has often been criticised for "pandering" to contending parties as it exercised its collective wisdom and patience to resolve many a deadlock between them. The commission also kept writing reminders to parties to submit their annual financial audits and maintain many other disciplines while Nepal kept facing one political emergency after another, and the commission consistently faced the challenge of conducting periodic elections as per the new constitution amid the upheavals of a new democracy.
Among the challenges were Madhesi party crises, sometimes Mohan Vaidya and Netra Bikram Chand, and on such pretexts, many parties found an excuse to not follow legal discipline. The newly unified Nepal Communist Party (which was later split by a Supreme Court decision and restored to its original positions) totally ignored Section 15 (4) of the Political Party Act requiring at least one-third women at party committees, and anyone reminding them of this section was called out for "creating obstructions to a democratic process".
A commissioner trying to ensure that Section 15 (4) is followed was accused of "favouring" a certain party by inventing the excuse to delay formation of a new government. The constitution does not allow the Election Commission to declare the results of the House of Representatives until the National Assembly election results are cleared. The delay was caused by the president not having approved the National Assembly Election Act on time. As a result, it was the Election Commission which was getting a lot of flak. So the excuse used was this: “This is not the right time to bring up these small details when two major parties have united to form a government,” or “Do you not see that by taking up these details, you are insulting the ‘people's’ mandate?” or “The legal provision will be followed by all parties after their general assembly before the next general elections, why are you creating unnecessary problems now?” or “The Election Commission, media and civil society will not keep quiet after the general assemblies of the parties, so rest assured.”
Inclusion of women
Granted that the newly unified Nepal Communist Party at that time was in a great hurry to form a government and could not be bothered with small details, but political participation of women does not happen overnight, nor do women make it to the top overnight. The ground needs to be prepared carefully in order to achieve organic participation and inclusion of women in the political process. Unless women do not form a critical mass within the political parties, their place in leadership positions will not be organic or sustainable.
I am writing this as a reminder that the rule of law should not take a back seat, or women’s issues become "small details" before or after the general assemblies. I am hoping that this time round, the Election Commission, media and civil society will keep a watch and hold the parties accountable to this commitment of inclusion made by their own Members of Parliament in Political Party Act 2017. Is not it ironical that the political parties whose members enacted the law do not follow through with their own commitments? The judiciary can take suo moto cognisance of this violation, this breach of duty if the parties do not follow through with their own commitment.