‘Political parties have agreed to all proposed revisions in electoral laws’Ram Prasad Bhandari, election commissioner, on provisions in election management draft bill and their execution.
The Election Commission last week finalised the election management draft bill with several revisions in the existing legal provisions on election. The draft bill prepared after years of homework needs to get through the Parliament before coming into force. Portrayed as a progressive law by the commission, it will replace seven different Acts if it gets federal Parliament’s approval. While the government is studying the draft, Binod Ghimire of the Post talked to Ram Prasad Bhandari, a commissioner at the commission, to learn about its provisions and how they will be executed. Excerpts:
Why is a new election law required when there are several Acts, which were prepared just a few years ago, in place?
The 2015 constitution formalised Nepal as a federal republic and secular democratic nation. Periodic elections are an integral part of democracy. Different Acts and regulations were prepared to implement the constitution through elections. Back then, as the elections were round the corner, the laws and regulations were prepared in haste and were thus incomplete. We realised seven out of nine election laws need to be merged into one, and updated. After four or five years of discussions with the political parties, civil society members and election experts, we finalised the bill that integrates seven different Acts guiding the elections of the President and Vice President, House of Representatives, National Assembly and the local level.
What is the current status of the draft bill?
After the commission’s approval, the draft bill has been dispatched to the Ministry of Home Affairs, our line agency. It will then be forwarded to the Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of Law. After the clearance from the two ministries, the Cabinet’s bill committee will study it. The Cabinet has to endorse it before it is registered in the Parliament. The commission prepared it after thorough study to have a perfect election law for the country. Now it is up to the government and the sovereign Parliament to decide.
The National Assembly elections will be held in February/March next year. Do you think a new Act will come into force by then?
The draft bill aims to address the existing shortcomings in the election process and procedures. We want the upcoming elections to be fairer, and more cost effective and representative. As it was prepared after a highly consultative process, there is no reason to delay its endorsement. I am hopeful that the upcoming upper house elections will be conducted based on the new law. However, delay in the bill’s endorsement will not stop the election because the existing law will continue to be valid until then.
What incomplete provisions in the existing election Acts have been corrected in the draft?
Hundreds of thousands of Nepali youths working in different countries have been deprived of their right to vote despite having their names in the voter list. We want to ensure their franchise. A large section of youths has been left out of the election process in the absence of arrangements to allow those living abroad to vote.
The existing law authorises the government to fix election dates in consultation with the commission. This has resulted in uncertainty over determining election dates. We have thus proposed fixed dates for each election. This will end the uncertainty over election dates. With fixed dates in place, the commission as well as political parties can make election preparations accordingly.
As per existing election law anyone who has a corruption case or serious criminal offence registered against her/him can contest the election. However, other laws stop them from working as a lawmaker, as in the case of Tek Bahadur Gurung, who was elected to the House of Representatives from Manang. Gurung could contest the election and win it despite facing a corruption charge. But he is barred from working as a lawmaker. This is injustice to the people of Manang who don’t have a representative to raise their concerns in the Parliament. So we have proposed that those who are facing corruption charges or cases of serious criminal offence be barred from contesting elections.
Similarly, long ago, the Supreme Court had directed the government to allow voters to cast negative votes. It said one must get to reject all the candidates if s/he doesn’t like any of them. The draft bill has a provision of negative voting. If half of the total votes are ‘no votes’, there will be re-election in the particular constituency. The constitution has guaranteed 33 percent women reservation in different state machineries. We have also proposed that at least a third of the candidates in the first-past-the-post elections be women. This was necessary as the parties created a perception that women can be lawmakers only through proportional representation.
Having 33 percent candidacy doesn’t ensure women representation in the same proportion. Why didn’t the commission purpose to reserve some constituencies for women?
More the number of women candidates, the greater the possibility that more of them will be elected. We have proposed a minimum of 33 percent. But if the parties want to honour the spirit of the constitution that envisions women’s greater representation, they can pick as many as they want. However, reserving certain constituencies for women will deprive the right of the men to contest the polls. Only party representatives don’t contest the polls, there are independent candidates as well. I believe it wouldn’t be right to bar anyone from contesting the polls. I also believe women are capable enough to give men a tough fight in elections.
There are millions of Nepalis living and working in the Middle Eastern and Gulf countries. Does the Election Commission have the capacity to conduct voting in these countries?
The commission needs the government’s support in the managerial part. First, voter registration needs to be done wherever the Nepali are living. The commission cannot do it on its own. It needs to be done through our embassies. We have proposed to allow them to cast votes only under the proportional representation category. One willing to vote for the first-past-the-post must be present in the respective constituency in person.
Conducting voting in foreign land is complex and needs huge resources. The government will analyse whether it has the capacity to do so. It is a gradual process. If it is not possible for the next election, maybe we can develop the capacity by another election.
The commission has proposed several provisions to curb overspending and extravagance in elections. Existing laws also allow the commission to stop such practices but no major action has been taken against any candidate so far. Having stern legal provisions alone is clearly not enough.
We need laws to curb any wrong practice but we cannot expect them to be fully implemented overnight. Correction is a gradual process. The extravagance has declined over the years. I have voted in the elections since the time of referendum in 1980. I can say the use of banners, pamphlets, wall paintings and other publicity materials has decreased significantly. The spending in last year’s election was very less as the commission actively enforced the election code of conduct.
That doesn’t mean nobody violated the spending ceiling. However, we need strong proof to establish that. The commission even studied the bills from different hotels where some candidates allegedly spent huge sums in feasting. However, we didn’t find any bill paid by any of the election candidates to have breached our ceiling. It is not possible for us to take action without evidence.
There are instances whereby the government has totally revised the commission’s draft bill before tabling it in the Parliament. How confident are you that the government will not revise it this time?
We prepared the draft in consultations with representatives from all the parties. They have agreed to all the provisions we have proposed. We know top political leadership will also discuss it before it goes through several rounds of discussions in the parliamentary committee and full House. They have the prerogative to revise the draft as they like. However, as every provision in the draft was incorporated with a good intention of making elections fair, cheaper and inclusive, we hope that it won’t be revised by killing its spirit.