Vote of confidenceThe Election Commission should be strengthened to make it a bulwark of democracy
The Election Commission is a constitutional body set up to realise the concept of separation of powers with the main duty of conducting periodic elections and referendums in a free, fair and credible manner. Any electoral management body (EMB) practices the fundamental principles of independence, impartiality, transparency, professionalism and sustainability while conducting an electoral event. The Election Commission is an independent organisation and is expected to be autonomous. However, it has been drawing criticism from some quarters that it is merely a puppet of the government and is unable to maintain its independence.
The government plays a significant role in strengthening the Election Commission by refraining from undue interference and providing cooperation at the operational, political and financial levels. This EMB is accountable to the Parliament and the public through reports on the conduct of elections. The government and parties in government should develop a culture where the Election Commission conducts free, fair and credible elections. A number of legal and organisational mechanisms need to be put in place to enhance the Election Commission’s independence. The appointment of the commissioner should not be based on politics but on the candidate’s experience and expertise in the field, adequate research and study in the management of elections and related activities.
A vote against self-interest
Even though we have a constitutional council to recommend a candidate for commissioner, and hopefuls have to appear at a parliamentary hearing, this is just a formality. The commissioner is picked from among political vagabonds, and the parliamentary hearings committee consists of representatives of the major political parties. It is better if the Parliament selects the commissioner from a list by majority vote in order to encourage political parties to reach a consensus.
The next important point is that the Election Commission should have full regulatory powers to draft and approve laws, secondary regulations and specific procedures regarding the enforcement of electoral laws. This would guarantee proper conduct of elections. In none of these activities and responsibilities should it be subject to oversight by the government. The third important point is that the government should let the Election Commission be free from financial control, and subject to internal audit and external oversight. An impartial electoral administration is a requirement for credible elections and legitimate results. Impartiality means acting as an honest broker so that all the electoral processes are undertaken in an objective and fair manner. In addition, a level playing field is necessary for genuine democratic competition.
International experience shows that impartiality is closely linked to independence from the government and political parties. In our case, the Election Commission implements the code of conduct during an election. Political parties usually violate the election code of conduct. So far, the Election Commission has not taken prompt action against violations except for issuing press releases. The government sets the date for elections and postpones it repeatedly without getting the Election Commission’s consent. The Election Commission can do nothing except follow the government’s whims.
Where there’s a will
The time has come for the Election Commission to play a proactive role as an independent body with the power to fix the election date. This will not only guarantee periodic elections but also ensure smooth functioning of democracy by maintaining its independence. The Election Commission should follow international experience. The most widely accepted and used approach in all stages of the electoral process should be practiced here. Using a proactive approach to ensure that all stakeholders are confident about the integrity of the process is the need of the hour.
Making use of modern electoral devices, ICT (Information and Communication Technology) and innovation in the working style will not only increase confidence but also help to win public trust. E-voting, e-voter education and modernisation of the ballot paper are some of the areas that the Election Commission should immediately work on. The lengthy time taken to declare the results of the recent local elections has prompted the Election Commission to explore alternatives to the traditional ballot paper. Revamping its organisational structure and recruiting a professional workforce is another area where the Election Commission needs to pay attention.
Political parties are major actors in a democracy. They play a significant role in forming electoral legislation that will make the Election Commission a truly autonomous body. They can help in implementing the election code of conduct. They should extend cooperation by maintaining financial discipline during election campaigns.
Political parties should not hesitate to lobby for authorising the Election Commission to fix the poll date. They must realise that periodic elections can be ensured when the EMB is empowered and allowed to work independently. They should build consensus among themselves and work to strengthen the Election Commission and make it independent and autonomous without undue influence.
Finally, civil society members, intellectuals, media persons and all stakeholders should work untiringly to strengthen the Election Commission so that it can embody basic principles such as the ethical framework for the conduct of elections by maintaining independence, impartiality, transparency, professionalism and sustainability.
Marasini holds Master’s degrees in English and public administration, and currently serves at the Election Commission, Nepal