The electoral ‘money game’ started right from candidate-selection dayBinod Ghimire from the Post talked to Pradip Pokharel, chairperson of the Election Observation Committee, Nepal, a prominent organisation in election observation which has also been studying overspending in election campaigns.
The election code of conduct for the upcoming House of Representatives and provincial assembly elections has come into force from September 28. Several instances of violation of the code have been reported in the past three weeks. Along with the Election Commission, different election observation bodies have kept a close eye on the activities of the election candidates and the leaders of the political parties. The commission has the authority to take stern measures against those violating the poll codes. However, it is often blamed for doing nothing more than seeking clarification. Binod Ghimire from the Post talked to Pradip Pokharel, chairperson of the Election Observation Committee, Nepal, a prominent organisation in election observation which has also been studying overspending in election campaigns.
The interview has been condensed for clarity.
You have already started to observe the upcoming elections. Has the election code of conduct been implemented effectively?
We have formally started election observation from the day of the nominations for the first-past-the-post (FPTP) system for both the federal and provincial assemblies. However, informally, our observation began from the time when parties started selecting their candidates. We have found the "money game" for elections has started right from candidate-selection.
On the nomination day, the election code of conduct was flouted in all electoral constituencies by the candidates from political parties and those holding public positions alike. The violation continues on a daily basis.
Is the commission taking appropriate actions to curb the rampant code violation?
No, it hasn't. The commission has sought clarifications and issued warnings against various candidates, including the top leadership of a party. The violation can be excused in the first time; however, the commission has failed to take action even on repeated instances of code violation. The upcoming elections must be looked at as a continuity of the local elections in May. Those who presented clarification more than once during the local elections are violating the code again. The commission hasn't been taking stringent measures. As an umpire, it has issued "yellow cards" but fears giving out "red cards". This has developed a kind of complacency in the candidates that the commission won't take extreme measures.
However, it is also the responsibility of the political parties and their candidates to abide by the rules. Those in the election race with promises to develop the nation must respect the rules. They must be aware of the kind of election culture they want to establish.
The political parties and their candidates say the code is impractical. Is that the case?
There is some truth in the allegation. The country's cultural grounds must be considered while preparing the code. I find flaws in the very process of code of conduct preparation. The commission prepares it and imposes it on the parties. However, internationally, it is prepared with the participation of prospective election candidates. For instance, the District Election Office, Kathmandu, can prepare the list of do's and don'ts after consultations with the district's candidates and get it signed. This increases the candidates' ownership of the code and makes them more liable to follow it.
We, on different occasions, suggested the commission to this effect, but the constitutional body was least interested. It prepared the 83-page code of conduct without adequate consultation.
Why do you think the commission was not interested in your suggestions?
We have developed a culture of working in the last hour. The lapses in implementing the code of conduct have existed for long. However, the commission seldom evaluates previous elections and is reluctant to find reasons for the weaknesses. The commission is busy one of every five years in holding elections. In the remaining four years, it can hold discussions with concerned stakeholders and electoral experts in evaluating the elections and devising proper strategies for new elections. However, we haven't seen that happen.
So the commission has failed to make the proper use of the four years between elections?
A lot can be done between the elections. We have a practice of voter education during the polls, which is aimed at imparting knowledge about techniques in casting votes. It only covers niche areas. The commission needs to impart civic education. In civic education, the people are informed about why to vote. Why elect a capable candidate, and how to identify one? They are taught the importance of their vote. That will make them aware that their one mistake while putting a stamp on the ballot paper could make them regret it for the next four years.
If voters are aware, the implementation of the code becomes effective. The aware voters make the right decision, ultimately strengthening the democracy and democratic process.
The Election Commission can partner with organisations like ours for civic education. This can be done when there are no elections. We can teach the higher grades, school students, and people from different communities like mother groups and cooperatives. If a member of one family gets education, s/he can teach the entire family.
There are complaints about the escalating costs of election campaigns. Your research also suggests so. What can be done to control the expenses?
The election cost depends on the electoral system as well. There is minimal expense for campaigning in a fully proportional system. In ours, where 60 percent of the lawmakers are directly elected, the cost of election campaigns has been surging. Over the years, people from the private sector, be it from education, constructions, or big business houses, have been showing an increasing interest in politics. They are making huge investments in the hope that they can be recovered once they are elected.
The failure to select the right candidates is leading to a surge in spending. Such candidates don't trust the people, so they pour money for votes. The voters also need to be aware, and if we adopt a policy that parliamentarians are barred from becoming ministers, election spending will be automatically controlled.
Some say that the electoral system needs to be changed to control election malpractices. What do you say?
There is no denying that the current electoral system hasn't worked. This will never give us a majority government—2017's being an exception. Instability hampers the country's prosperity in multiple ways and only increases corruption. I think the time has come to debate our country's governance and electoral system. In my view, we need to shift to a directly elected executive head with strong legal provisions to keep him/her accountable to the public.
A fully proportional representation system could be another alternative. However, we have seen how parties are misusing the system. If we adopt it, there must be strong legal provisions to ensure a proportional representation of the particular community. Our organisation will start debates and discussions on it when the November 20 elections are over.
Why do we have so many invalid votes every election?
We blamed lack of voter education for the high number of invalid votes in the 2017's elections and even before. However, after evaluating recent local elections, we have found other prominent reasons. The male members, who generally head the families, are abroad as migrant workers and in their absence, no one in the family knows how to vote. Similarly, during local elections, the invalid votes were high in places like Kathmandu, Lalitpur and Biratnagar, among others. This means the people are deliberately spoiling their ballot papers as we don't have "no vote" provisions.