Nepal needs the PR electoral system until we achieve inclusiveness that renders PR unnecessaryUnder your tenure as Chief Election Commissioner, the country held the historic CA election in 2008. Why, in your opinion, are these elections important?
Former Chief Election Commissioner Bhojraj Pokharel oversaw the historic 2008 national elections, navigating through an extremely difficult time to hold a successful election. Mukul Humagain talked to Pokharel, now a senior research fellow studying the reduction of election violence at the Washington-based Institute of Peace, about the upcoming provincial assembly and federal parliament elections scheduled for Nov 26 and Dec 7, the roadblocks the EC has had to overcome, controversies related to candidate selection and electoral spending as issues that have plagued these elections, and emerging trends for a better political future. Parties are weak and lack checks and balances. Those within the high command are more concerned with bringing those close to them into the government, instead of promoting people who are actually worthy of the posts.
Under your tenure as Chief Election Commissioner, the country held the historic CA election in 2008. Why, in your opinion, are these elections important?
Nepal is currently under a new federal governance, an achievement that was reached after much strife through the Jan Andolan II. We have a new, and more inclusive constitution that we need to implement for which the success of these polls are integral. Those who are elected to power through these polls are duty-bound to behave in a manner that upholds the values enshrined in our constitution. Only if these political forces are strong and committed can the constitution be validated and the new federal structure realised.
Do you think the Election Commission (EC) is prepared for these elections despite the controversies they have faced regarding the format of ballot papers, as well as allegations that lack of voter education led—in the local elections and now again in the upcoming elections—to a high number of invalid votes?
In the past, Nepal has had to conduct one major election every four to five years. Now, within a year, we have had to contend with elections for the local level, provincial assemblies, and the federal parliament. This requires huge levels of mobilisation and resources that our state, and the EC, were not prepared for.
The EC’s preparations were further hampered by a number of factors. For example, the issue of the ballot papers. The EC may have decided to print a single ballot paper because it was the most convenient option for them. However, two separate ballot papers would have been more convenient for the voters. This ultimately led to the Supreme Court (SC) ruling for the preparation of two ballot papers. This decision by the SC led to a number of changes the EC had to institute, not only in printing ballot papers, but also in terms of voter education. Materials prepared to educate voters for casting polls on one ballot paper had to be changed to prepare voters for two ballot papers instead. This only added to the logistical difficulties the EC had to contend with. However, despite these issues, I still believe the EC is prepared to hold the elections.
You were Chief Election Commissioner between 2006 and 2009—a particularly tumultuous time in Nepali history. The elections in 2008 and 2013 were postponed a number of times and faced numerous security issues. And now, in 2017, the electoral process is also assailed by complications. It seems as though the electoral processes in Nepal are particularly problematic.
Two year after the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2006, the 2008 elections that I supervised were tied up with the peace process. It was understood that the success of the elections would indicate the success of the peace process, too. This led to a more agreeable mind-set amongst political parties; they were ready to compromise to achieve peace.
That being said, we did have to contend with a number of difficulties that were related particularly to security. The Army typically provides security in the electoral process, but they were confined to their barracks. And there were armed insurgent groups that were focused on obstructing elections.
In 2013, Mohan Baidya, Chairman of the CPN (Maoist), boycotted the elections for the Constituent Assembly (CA). This trend of election boycott can be seen in these elections, too. Another prevalent trend is the violent conflict between parties. In 2008, such violence used to be commonplace, but came down in 2013, and has gone down even more since. The nature of polls depends on the context, the time, and the situation.
The Proportional Representation (PR) system was introduced in Nepal for the first time in 2008. There are a range of opinions on whether we need to continue using this system and if yes, in what form?
The main premise behind the institution of the PR system is that politics has been captured by the societal elite and excluding the marginalised from the decision-making process. If voices of the elite and marginalised alike are heard in Parliament, then all will be given ownership of the constitution. By giving the marginalised a space in political parties, they get to voice their grievances. This will make the state stronger and lead to a more inclusive system that is representative of all citizens, and that can lead to a more inclusive decision-making process.
We need to continue with the PR system for a number of years more until we achieve inclusiveness that renders PR unnecessary. Of course, problems with the PR have recently emerged. Those who are elected via First Past the Post (FPTP) are regarded as those that ‘belong’, while those who are elected via PR are considered to be inferior. And the ingrained social structure and accompanying stereotypes do nothing to improve the situation. The elite cannot take those from marginalised groups seriously. So we need to look into ways to improve the PR system, rather than casting it aside.
Despite the EC setting a ceiling for electoral spending, parties have been spending estimated millions on campaigning. The opacity of campaign financing can be blamed for this, but how can we ensure that transparency can be achieved?
The Election Code of Conduct (COC) has stated that parties cannot spend more than Rs2.5million for federal polls and Rs1.5million for provincial polls. This has not been followed. The main reason behind flouting these rules is that there is no proper legislative environment or implementation mechanism to uphold these regulations and make political parties accountable. Our state institutions are not yet strong enough to bring violators to account. This rise in electoral spending has led to clean politicians being replaced by those with money, resources and power. In order to avoid this, we have to monitor the process of political financing, bring offenders to account, and create the capacity to implement regulations. We need to aim for state funding of elections. This will allow the government to audit the funds and regulate party funds, thus making parties more accountable.
Won’t the fact that 20 business contractors, 10 candidates from the lucrative education sector, and one billionaire are contesting the elections increase the possibility of conflicts of interests?
Globally, there has been an increase in political candidates from the business community. For candidates, the benefits are obvious: they clearly see entry into politics as an investment through which their campaigning can bring about returns for their business venture. And for parties, the entry of businesspeople also leads to the injection of much needed funds. Campaigning is expensive, and parties tend to forget that the source of the money matters as much as what it is used for. So the line between clean and dirty money is blurred.
It is the right for all civilians to enter into politics, but they must not spoil the system in the process. More often than not, once these businesspeople win their seats, they try to make good on their investment through various means. For example, they may turn towards resource centred policies instead of people centred policies. This focus could put the state on a downward spiral, leading to the widening of the gap between the people and the political institutions.
The increased participation of those with resources, monetary or otherwise, is a trend that has to be addressed forthwith. We need to formulate strong institutions, legal instruments, and capacity development. Furthermore, civic education, or the lack there of, has to be addressed immediately. Nepal is floundering without civic education; both the public and the politicians cannot distinguish between right and wrong. Through civic education, we can do away with practices such as the exchange of votes for money. People will realise they are selling their sovereign power for cash.
How serious is our leadership towards the electoral process? Political leaders are awarding tickets to family members and friends, making a mockery of our elections.
Parties are weak and lack checks and balances. Those within the high command are more concerned with bringing those close to them into the government, instead of promoting people who are actually worthy of the posts. Our leadership is not fit to govern political parties, let alone the government. They have caused citizens to distance themselves from the state.
Nepal’s political landscape has been dominated by the leftist forces to one side, and the democratic forces to another. In urban Nepal, another force has appeared in the Bibeksheel-Sajha. Is there hope for this new phenomenon?
Traditional political parties are losing credibility amongst supporters. I cannot pinpoint the exact reasons as to why, but this loss of support is alarming. And perhaps the new parties can benefit from this loss. The new parties that have emerged may not be able to capture this credibility immediately so there is a need for them to build up a base of support. They are appealing to the fact that the traditional leaders have not yet been able to deliver on their promises, and that the helm of leadership should be turned over. They are right to a certain extent. If the traditional parties want to stop this loss of support, they need to improve themselves.
Following the completion of the elections, we will be a federal democratic republic. Where should the focus of political parties be in the days to come?
We have had to contend with instability for a great many years. We need to now address the aspirations of the people and strengthen the state and the public. This has to be the basis for our agenda. Currently, we do not have good governance, the system is not working, the rule of law is lost, there is no access, and corruption is rampant. These issues have to be addressed by the elected government/parties. Only then can we move forward. We used to have only one central government, but now we have multiple provincial governments. If they all follow the path of corruption, then we will be in dire straits.
The EC’s role as an effective and autonomous body has been called into question a number of times. How can the EC be strengthened?
Our constitution states that the EC is autonomous. This right has to be asserted, and the EC’s enforcement capacity has to be increased. I don’t think the election dates and who set them are a big issue. We have to set a specific date for elections that will be followed in all the years to come. This date should be enshrined in the constitution. If all three elections-national, local and federal-are held on this date, it will cut costs considerably.
We have seen that the state has had an overbearing attitude towards the EC, and has been deaf to the EC’s suggestions. We need to identify the reasons behind these disagreements and address them as agendas for future reforms if we are to strengthen the electoral process.