Theory of dissent‘None of the above’ is a legitimate option that allows the electorate to reject candidates.
In a functional democracy, dissent becomes a precious tenet as well as a crucial pre-requisite. If citizens are unable to avail their privilege of the right to dissent, then in that country, democracy is functioning with clipped wings. Furthermore, without dissent, progress would be undemanding and stock-still. Consider the Indian independence movement without Mahatma Gandhi's non-violent resilience, America's racial progress without the Civil Rights Movement or the fight towards gender equality without the Suffragette movement.
Article 17 (2) (a) in the constitution guarantees every Nepali citizen the “freedom of opinion and expression”, albeit it has deprived balloters of the voting option to reject all candidates—None of the above (NOTA). This compels voters to choose the lesser worse when electing a candidate running for a seat in the government. NOTA is a legitimate voting option that allows the electorate to reject candidates. While it is still debated if the provision of the option of NOTA increases voter turnout, several countries have provided their voters this choice. India, Colombia and the United States (in Nevada state) have implemented the NOTA system, among other countries.
Dance with NOTA
In January 2014, the Supreme Court passed a ruling directing the government to add a provision for voters to “reject all candidates” in the then forthcoming elections by formulating the required laws. However, rejecting candidates through the ballot box has become an elusive dream for the electorate as the ballot papers till date are sans the NOTA option. The legislative body has not been able to act on the ruling. Such inertia not only mocks the judiciary but also quashes the reject-all-candidates option for the electorate.
In 2016, the Election Commission tried to integrate the court ruling into the electoral law by proposing a bill regarding the “reject all candidates” option to Parliament. Unfortunately, the bill was rejected by the political parties after a parliamentary discussion in 2017. The Supreme Court sent out another order in 2019 instructing the political parties and the Election Commission to formulate appropriate laws on NOTA. However, the court’s directives have been futile attempts to incorporate NOTA in the ballot papers of Nepal.
The socio-political decay and perennial gerontocratic faces in coveted positions of power, decade after decade, have added to the frustrations of the youth in Nepal. Questionable accountability, corruption and cronyism are some of the salient features of the present political crop. According to a 2015 survey titled Nationwide Public Opinion Survey, 55 percent of the respondents rejected the established political leaders of various parties and wanted to see new faces on the question regarding who should become the new prime minister after the promulgation of the constitution. A more recent survey on the Nepali youth’s thinking has disappointingly mentioned that political parties, the federal government and the president are the least trusted government institutions.
Given the sorry state of affairs due to utter misgovernance, the NOTA option can feature as a right to dissent for the Nepali populace. Moreover, there is a surge of desire for NOTA due to the consistent shifting of power between recurrent leaders which has recently been seen on social media. In Columbia, for instance, if blank votes gain a majority, the elections must be repeated wherein previous candidates are excluded from the new ballot paper.
Similar to Nepal, India’s Supreme Court in September 2013 allowed voters the right to reject all candidates. The only difference between the two countries is that it has been implemented in India. But the NOTA option in India is toothless. Under the First-Past-The-Post system in India, even if NOTA garners a maximum number of votes, the candidate with the highest number of the remaining votes wins the election.
But the callousness of politicians against any kind of dissent is ever so evident in Nepal. To hold elected officials accountable, a more hard-hitting form of NOTA may seem applicable than the symbolic one in India. An example would be re-election if the NOTA option achieves a simple majority. But it is important to bear in mind some unforeseen consequences of NOTA in an unstable political environment like in Nepal. Firstly, Nepal has never had an elected government serving the full five-year term, and what if NOTA gets a majority in the House? This vacancy in Parliament could add further drama to the political scenario and spark another round of elections. It is common knowledge that re-elections will strain the state coffers. Second, lack of voter education can trigger the electorate to look beyond the capabilities of independent or party-affiliated candidates. Either way, the onus falls on the politicians to project themselves as the people’s candidate and effectively articulate their vision for the country.
In contrast, without any dissent, there can be no push for reform in the country. The legislative body needs to be held accountable for its inaction on the 2014 ruling of the Supreme Court. The best step forward would be for parliamentarians to deliberate again on ways to implement NOTA in the ballot papers as democracy is all about choices. In a healthy democracy, periodic elections serve as a process to hold sitting candidates accountable. But as gerontocracy seems to rule the roost in Nepali politics with their myopic vision of the country, a systemic change through NOTA is necessary for a genuine political expression of dissent.
We cannot have a right as fundamental as dissent be squandered at the hands of a few political rent seekers who prioritise their interest above the country’s welfare. The option of NOTA is not to primarily propagate only dissent but to realise the full consummation of civil and political rights which are any individual’s prerogative under the law. It is incumbent on the state authorities to permit citizens to voice their dissent and grievances through different avenues before it reaches a tipping point. An example of an eruption of a brewing dissatisfaction amongst Nepali youth was the “Enough is Enough” campaign. In 2020, at the peak of Covid-19, Nepali youth activists’ resentment against the government’s poor handling of the pandemic burst out in the form of protest. As a nouveau democracy, bringing NOTA into practice would not only invigorate our democracy, but also legitimatise it to its fullest extent.