Polls have been announced, but there are challenges, past and present chief election commissioners sayWillingness of the parties to go to the polls is the biggest one. Before that Election Commission will have to resolve the dispute within the Nepal Communist Party.
Midterm polls have been announced in two phases on April 30 and May 10.
Whether they will be held or not first and foremost depends on how the Supreme Court rules on the writs that have been filed calling for the reinstatement of the House of Representatives President Bidya Devi Bhandari dissolved on Sunday on the recommendation of Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli.
But soon after the announcement of the dissolution, the prime minister summoned the chief election commissioner and two other election commissioners and asked them to prepare for the polls.
Although there is sufficient time to prepare, the Election Commission has concerns about how the political situation will evolve in the run up to the midterm elections.
“The main challenge for us to hold the elections will be how the political situation evolves going forward,” said Chief Election Commissioner Dinesh Thapaliya.
The anti-Oli faction within the ruling party, as well as opposition parties in the dissolved House of Representatives, has called the House dissolution “unconstitutional”. And they have not said unequivocally that they will take part in the elections although the meeting of the Oli faction on Tuesday said it would.
“As of now, it appears that most political parties are against holding fresh parliamentary elections,” said Ayodhee Prasad Yadav, former chief election commissioner. “A political consensus is required to hold elections like in the past."
During the Constituent Assembly elections in 2008, there was a challenge to get the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), which had entered peaceful politics by ending the decade-long conflict in 2006, on board.
Likewise, bringing the Madhesi forces, who had organised the first Madhes movement in 2007 demanding federalism, to the polls was another challenge.
The second Constituent Assembly elections were held in a relatively less challenging situation in 2013 although the security challenge was a bigger factor with a faction split from the Maoist party boycotting the elections and resorting to violence.
In the 2017 elections, protests by the Madhes-based parties regarding the delineation of electoral constituencies had posed challenges, particularly during the local elections. There had also been a limited degree of challenge from the Netra Bikram Chand-led Communist Party of Nepal as well.
Even though legal challenges have been made against the dissolution of the House, Thapaliya said that as the authority to hold elections, the commission should prepare to hold the polls on the announced dates.
"Holding elections this time around is not as challenging as in 2008 when not only was the political situation volatile but we also had to prepare a new process and systems for the elections," said former chief election commissioner Bhojraj Pokharel, who led the commission at that time.
But like Thapaliya and Singh he too thinks the political situation in the country is a bigger challenge. In particular he is concerned about the internal dispute in the Nepal Communist Party.
“The Election Commission may be required to settle disputes within the ruling Nepal Communist Party if both sides approach the commission claiming to be the Nepal Communist Party," said Pokharel.
This is particularly important in assigning the election symbol.
On Monday, the Nepal Communist Party faction led by chair Pushpa Kamal Dahal and senior leader Madhav Kumar Nepal, who was elevated as chair on Tuesday, informed the commission of the disciplinary action they had taken against Prime Minister Oli.
On Tuesday morning, Oli held a meeting of the Central Committee of his faction of the party which decided to increase the number of members of the Central Committee to 1199 so that he has a majority in the party’s Central Committee.
This decision was subsequently relayed to the Election Commission but whether the Oli faction’s expansion of the Central Committee is legally valid or not will have to be decided by the commission based on the Political Parties Act-2017.
As the Nepal Communist Party heads for a split, the commission’s decision will have a bearing on which faction gets the election symbol “sun”, which is at present assigned to the Nepal Communist Party (NCP).
“Only after dispute settlement, may the commission distribute election symbols,” said Pokharel. “After distributing election symbols, the commission starts printing ballot papers, which is also a time consuming affair.”
Then there are administrative and logistical preparations like updating the voters’ list and educating voters considering the large-scale cancellation of votes in the last elections, according to Pokharel.
“Procuring election materials is another challenge as all goods are not available within the country,” he said.
Pokharel said that the delay in court giving its verdict regarding the constitutionality of the House dissolution could also affect the commission’s preparations.
"If the legal process is prolonged and the court gives its verdict in favour of holding the elections in the eleventh hour, questions will arise whether the elections could be held within six months from the date of announcement as per the constitutional provision," he added.
According to a statement issued by the Office of the President on Sunday, the House dissolution was based primarily on Article 76 (1) and 76(7) and Article 85 of the constitution. Although citing this article as the basis for the dissolution has been questioned, it states that election to another House of Representatives must be completed within six months of the dissolution.
Experts and officials also point out how the situation regarding the Covid-19 pandemic develops as the election date approaches while the availability of resources for holding the elections are other concerns.
Even though the vaccination process against Covid-19 has begun in some countries including the United States and the United Kingdom, Nepal’s government has not decided which vaccine it would purchase and when it would do so.
"We are still in the preparatory phase and we have not yet decided which vaccines to purchase," said Jageshwor Gautam, spokesperson for the Ministry of Health and Population.
According to him, the ministry does not have an outlook of the situation of the pandemic during April and May.
"Covid-19 will continue to exist here for a prolonged period but whether it will be on the scale of epidemic is uncertain," he said.
Public health officials, however, say although the number of daily cases is not as high as in October, the spread is not slowing down.
Elections have been held in the middle of a pandemic in the US, Bihar in India, Myanmar, some European countries and Bolivia in recent months.
"These elections showed that the polls can be held even amid such a health crisis," said Pokharel. "But people's participation was less in some of them. In some countries, a tendency to curb voting rights has appeared by keeping polling booths away from the stronghold of the opposition parties citing the risk of coronavirus."
The government will also be forced to spend big on holding elections at a time when it has been struggling to finance efforts of economic recovery and then there are finances needed to procure vaccines.
According to Gautam, the estimated cost of purchasing the vaccine and necessary infrastructure for storing the vaccine would be Rs48 billion.
"We have sought the budget from the Finance Ministry which has responded saying that the budget would not be a problem for purchasing the vaccine," said Gautam.
But a senior official at the Finance Ministry said, on condition of anonymity, that arranging extra budget for holding the elections would be challenging considering that revenue collection has largely been enough only to meet administrative expenditures.
According to the Financial Comptroller General Office, the government collected Rs309 billion in revenues while recurrent, or administrative, expenditures of the government stood at Rs286 billion as of December 20 this fiscal year.
In the last federal and provincial elections, the election authority had spent Rs7.75 billion, according to Raj Kumar Shrestha, spokesperson for the commission.
On top of this, the government needs to spend massively to maintain law and order too which requires extra billions of rupees.
"Based on the current revenue collection, arranging resources for elections from the recurrent budget head is challenging," the ministry official said. "But the Financial Working Procedure Act prevents the government from transferring the capital budget for the administrative purpose.”
The spending for elections falls under the category of recurrent expenditure.
Keeping the expenditures in mind, Chief Election Commissioner Thapaliya during his meeting with Prime Minister Oli even suggested that elections should be held on one day across the country.
“During the meeting with the Prime Minister on Sunday, we suggested holding the elections in a single phase, preferably on May 10, from the perspective of both management and austerity,” he told the Post.
But Oli, to take opponents in his party by surprise, held no consultations and called snap elections in two phases—April 30 and May 10.