Of alternative voting methodsNepal must assess its capacity to implement absentee voting and digitalise elections.
The largest cohort of voters, accounting for over 49 percent of the world’s population, will vote in the polls in 64 countries and territories by 2024. A few of them have already cast their ballots. This presents an excellent opportunity to closely observe the election supervision and management practices in these regions and the evolving landscape of democratic development amid the rise of extremism. Additionally, learning how these regions engage with their diaspora globally is possible.
The Election Commission of Nepal (EC) has been doing its best to enhance the fairness, independence, credibility, participation, accessibility, and transparency of the election processes. Nevertheless, certain challenges persist. The issue of transparent and participatory voting remains constrained and is subject to ongoing debate among the political parties. With the swift emigration trend, external voting is becoming apparent in the electoral governance discourse. The EC has presented the draft of the Election Management Bill to the Ministry of Home Affairs. Section 204 of the bill outlines provisions enabling individuals whose names are listed in the voter list living abroad to cast their votes from the same country with the assistance of designated Nepali diplomatic missions. Sub-section 5 specifies that proportional voting can be facilitated through online platforms, considering confidentiality and security.
A recent report by the Department of Immigration highlights an unprecedented surge in youth emigration, driven by aspirations for employment or advanced education, with approximately 1.6 million people annually. Despite consistent numbers of returnees, there is a noticeable surge in repatriations. According to a recent report, Nepal is the leading recipient of remittances in South Asia in terms of gross domestic production contribution; unfortunately, necessary legislative and preparatory measures for the electoral participation of the Nepali diaspora have yet to be enacted.
The recent initiatives of newly elected and long-established political parties indicate the onset of their campaigns for the forthcoming 2027 election. The CPN-UML conducted a 19-day campaign focused on the mid-hill region. Similarly, the Rastriya Swatantra Party held pressure programmes in response to the slow progress of various construction projects. Meanwhile, the Nepali Congress’s community campaign reflected a shared objective of Mission-84. Diverging opinion is evident among political parties concerning granting voting rights to the eligible Nepali diaspora, dispersed globally.
Migration poses challenges to inclusive democracy and will become more apparent in the upcoming election. The absentee population cannot vote because they are either outside their country or temporarily away from their registered constituency during the elections. Even with these substantial emigration movements, eligible voters outside their constituency are not allowed to vote under the existing electoral system.
There has been an obvious decline in recent elections regarding voter participation. Following the restoration of democracy, it was recorded at 88.13 percent in 1991 and has steadily decreased except for the constituent assembly election in 2013. However, this figure has experienced a downward trajectory, reaching a mere 61.35 percent in 2022. This pattern suggests many eligible voters will not exercise voting rights in their constituencies.
Participating in elections becomes logistically challenging, given the considerable time and financial investments required to reach the assigned polling locations. For instance, as a duly registered voter on the Election Commission website, I have yet to exercise my voting rights. In each election, I have been situated outside my constituency. To cast my vote, I would require at least a week of leave and an expenditure exceeding Rs20,000 to cover travel expenses. Thus, voting in the registered constituency for those residing abroad is more inconvenient.
Globally, 124 countries and territories allow external voting for legislative elections. Nearly every country in Europe provides for some form of external voting, and many allow citizens to vote from abroad for multiple types of elections. Most European Union countries also allow citizens abroad to vote in European Parliamentary elections. Around the world, 55 countries and territories do not allow any voting from abroad; we are still one of them, despite the emigration trend.
Alternatives to paper voting
Paper ballots are by far the most common form of voting. Votes are cast by manually marking ballots in 209 of the 227 countries and territories, whereas only 22 countries and territories use electronic voting machines and five use internet voting. Estonia had already elected its parliament in March 2023, where 51 percent cast their vote online. Estonia has offered secure I-voting since 2005 and relies heavily on strong voter authentication via e-ID.
According to a country expert survey, nearly 40 countries and territories have used postal ballots in their most recent national elections. Postal ballots were used most widely in Europe and North America and are also common in some countries in the Asia-Pacific region, such as India, Indonesia, South Korea and Sri Lanka.
Acknowledging the advantages of paper ballots, their user-friendliness, resilience to hacking, and independence from energy sources, it is essential to recognise their historical association with booth capturing, which leads to electoral violence. It is proposed that individuals possessing a national ID card should be awarded the privilege of casting their votes regardless of location. This provision would particularly benefit eligible voters outside their designated constituency or abroad, facilitating their participation in the electoral process using their national ID.
Lastly, the success of I-voting in Estonia serves as a testament to a digitally mature state that adapts processes to align with societal needs without compromising democratic values and principles. For this, the country’s cybersecurity is the key to a safe space for digital voting. Estonia ranked third, whereas Nepal ranked in the 94th position in the Global Cybersecurity Index 2020. This shows the challenges for Nepal with digital voting.
The recent cyberattacks on government office data underscore the vulnerability of Nepal's digital infrastructure. However, the inclusion of absentee voters is essential, given the changing demographics of the country. It is pertinent to assess our capacity to implement alternative voting methods. Although we have more cell phones than digital literacy and accessibility, we cannot isolate ourselves in the age of digital transformation accompanied by artificial intelligence. The incumbent leaders and the opposition should not make excuses, citing limited resources and inadequate infrastructure in prioritising absentee voting in the forthcoming election.