‘The upcoming elections will be fairer and impartial’Chief Election Commissioner Thapaliya on poll preparations, efforts to minimise invalid votes, and checking overspending.
The Election Commission has started preparations for the general and provincial elections scheduled for November 20. The polls are being held amid complaints that elections in Nepal are becoming costly and concerns about the rising number of invalid votes. There has also been criticism that the commission has failed to take strong measures to effectively implement the election code of conduct. Against this backdrop, the Post’s Binod Ghimire asked Chief Election Commissioner Dinesh Thapaliya about the preparations and steps being taken to make the elections fairer and impartial.
This interview has been condensed for clarity.
Incidents of booth capture and looting of ballot boxes were seen during the local polls held in a single phase earlier. Yet, the commission is willing to hold November 20 elections in one go. How do you plan to ensure proper security arrangements?
The decision was taken after a thorough study and by weighing the pros and cons of holding elections in a single phase and multiple phases. We found that holding elections in a single phase is cost effective; it is easier from logistical and human resource management points of view while it also saves the publicity cost. Similarly, implementation of the code of conduct is effective. In the past, when elections were held in two or three phases, party cadres from places where the elections were over would travel to other places that increased incidents of clashes.
Likewise, a long election process affects budget implementation, development and administrative works, business and economy. We concluded that conducting the elections in a single phase was way better because of multiple reasons.
You explained the logistics management aspect. What about security arrangements?
While recommending the government to conduct elections in a single phase, we clearly said that any sorts of security lapses that result in violence, terror among voters, booth capture or ballot box looting is unacceptable. We have also been told that the commission’s responsibility is to recommend what sorts of security arrangements are needed, but it is the Home Ministry that ensures security. The commission also has recommended four levels of integrated security plan: i) at the district level, ii) at the electoral constituency-level for both federal and provincial assembly elections, iii) at the provincial-level, and iv) at the federal level. The government has said it is ready to work as per our recommendations and ensure all the necessary security arrangements. So we believe the upcoming elections will be held peacefully.
What are the lessons from the local elections?
The commission had several things to learn. First, there are several mistakes on the voter roll—the names of many voters are incorrect, many people who died several years ago are still on the roll, and there are repetitions of names. Second, the election centres and booths, in some places, were extremely far, were not disabled-friendly and kept in sensitive areas in terms of security arrangements. Third, the blanket ban on vehicular movement on election day troubled voters. This time, we are allowing vehicular movement in a controlled way. Fourth was the delay in vote counting and announcement of the election results. Another important learning was the need to effectively implement the election code of conduct.
Similarly, determining the spending ceiling for candidates in a practical manner and ensuring it gets implemented is also a huge lesson for us. Lastly, there was misuse of social media during elections. We are devising strategies for the upcoming elections by addressing these shortcomings of the local polls.
The government is making new appointments, promoting officials and laying foundations for big projects even after elections were announced. What do you have to say on this?
There are two different sides to it. In several countries, all the government activities, except the day-to-day work, are carried out with the consent of the Election Commission. But in our case, the government continues to function as usual until the election code of conduct comes into force. However, the commission feels that the government shouldn’t launch any new activities unless they are of emergency nature and can be kept on hold until the elections are over. The commission is making a formal decision to this effect and will instruct the government accordingly.
We have already directed some of the provincial governments not to release the budget in the name of infrastructure development partnership programmes. The commission is committed to stopping any activities targeted at influencing the voters.
The commission sought clarification in over 250 cases of code of conduct violations during the local elections. But why is it hesitant to take action against those found involved in code violations repeatedly?
Seeking clarifications itself is the first step of action. We need concrete proof before taking any action because our decisions can be challenged in the courts. In almost every clarification, the accused says the allegations against her/him were false. For instance, one who is accused of breaching the campaign spending ceiling denies the charge. We have no option but to believe them because we don’t have bills/invoices or other evidence to prove overspending. We are bound not to take further action. The constitutional commission cannot take stern actions without a clear proof.
However, when there is evidence, the commission takes stern action. It has started action against over 115,000 local election candidates who didn’t submit their spending details in violation of the Local Level Election Act. So it would be wrong to conclude that the commission doesn’t take stern action.
Can’t the commission investigate rule violation cases on its own rather than just relying on what the accused say?
The commission definitely can carry out investigations on its own. In fact, independent probes will be done this time in some of the constituencies where there are higher numbers of complaints. We actually wanted to invite third party monitoring. However, as our existing law says the commission must be involved when it comes to taking legal actions, we will employ the local administration under our supervision for a detailed study of the expenditure. Also, we are planning to do an independent audit of the expenditure details submitted by candidates if the spendings are suspicious. If someone is found guilty, we can annul his/her candidacy, terminate their elected position and even disqualify them from contesting the polls in the future.
There are complaints that the elections have become very costly. How do you plan to address this issue?
There is a need for a collective effort to control extravagant expenditures. Let’s first be clear about the reasons why the elections have become costly. Have the elections become costly because the election management cost and security cost have gone up? If that is the case we are ready to review it. However, if the election costs have gone up because the candidates are spending money going beyond the ceilings, which were fixed in consultation with political parties, it is the primary duty of the parties and the candidates to check such overspending. You cannot point fingers at the commission when you are yourself responsible for making the elections costlier.
However, the commission can step in if any party or candidate complains that a voter has demanded money from them in exchange for votes. There can be legal actions in such cases. But when candidates and parties themselves are spending extravagantly and offering cash and kind to lure voters, the commission should not be blamed for such actions.
What can be done to lessen invalid votes and increase voter turnout?
I feel that a comprehensive study is necessary on these issues. In my view, the voter turnout in local elections was over 95 percent when we calculate the number of votes cast during the election. There were 17.7 million registered voters for local elections. Only those who were present in the respective polling centres from his/her wards of permanent residency could cast their votes. It is evident that some four million of our voters are living abroad while an additional one million voters, who are government employees and those whose work station is outside their permanent residency, too couldn’t cast their votes. So, of the 12.7 million available voters, some 12.3 million cast their votes in local elections, which is more than 95 percent.
Now, the challenge is to ensure voting access to those who are living abroad, government employees and others who cannot be in their constituencies for various reasons on the election day. Still, we are expecting over 75 percent voter turnout in the November 20 elections. However, our aim should be to increase it to 98 or 99 percent, like in Australia.
When it comes to higher invalid votes in the local polls, some technical issues too were responsible. There was a single ballot paper for seven votes [seven local government positions] while there were election symbols even when there were no candidates for several positions and this caused confusion among voters. Similarly, in the lack of a provision for no vote (negative voting), voters frustrated with the present political system deliberately invalidated their votes. I can say the invalid votes would have been quite low if there was no vote provision on the ballot paper.
It is alleged that the commission didn’t conduct voter education programmes to save costs and to show the elections were less costly. What is the plan for this time?
It is wrong to say voter education activities were not conducted. We focused more on using media and social media platforms to impart the information. It is true that we didn’t send volunteers door to door because there were several setbacks in the past. There were several complaints that those volunteers favoured particular parties and conducted publicity for them.
What I think is that the respective local units should conduct voter education. That will not just reduce the cost but will also be effective. Until that happens and this time also, we will deploy volunteers. However, the modality of their mobilisation is yet to be finalised.
Fairness is also about perception. During the local elections, the opposition accused the commission of favouring the ruling parties. What is the commission doing to avoid such charges?
The commission has been facing allegations of similar nature for a long time. This is an attempt to point fingers at others to prove oneself right. And it is largely done for political consumption. The fact is there is no need for the commission to get closer with some parties and maintain distance with others. It is an impartial institution and will remain so.
What can be done to end the perennial debate over fixing election dates?
We need to fix the dates in the law to end the confusion permanently. The commission, in the draft of the umbrella Act of the election law, has proposed mentioning the date in the law itself. Neither the commission will fix the date nor will the government. It will become a calendar event. Parliament must endorse it before it comes into effect. Let us see what happens.