All roar, no bite: Poll body says will monitor spending. Experts doubtThe Election Commission has announced it will deploy officials to monitor campaign expenditures, but analysts say they see little chance of action against overspending, a key source of corruption.
The Election Commission appears to be roaring, but its inefficiency when it comes to cracking down on parties and candidates for their wrongdoings shows it has by and large turned into a toothless tiger.
The commission on Friday issued a statement that it would deploy its monitors to the field to collect information on candidates’ election spendings.
Experts and analysts, however, doubt the poll body would dare to take action against overspenders. Overspending—spending more than the limits fixed by the commission—has become a norm in Nepal during polls which, experts for long have said, is fuelling corruption.
The commission says it will compare the information collected from the ground with the spending details submitted by the candidates after the elections.
As per Section 26 (1) of the Election Commission Act-2017, the poll body can slap a candidate with a fine equivalent to the amount spent by the candidate or the maximum spending limit set by the commission, whichever is more, in the case the candidates overspends or he or she fails to submit expenditure details on time. In case the candidate fails to pay the fine, he or she will not be able to contest elections for six years and if the overspender wins the election, his or her election is automatically invalidated, as per Section 26 (3 and 5) of Election Commission Act-2017.
“The law allows the commission to take action against overspenders but I doubt the commission will take action against anybody on charge of overspending because there is no history of overspenders being penalised as far as I know,” said Neil Kantha Uprety, a former chief election commissioner.
One reason behind the commission’s failure to take action against apparent overspending is that it is very difficult to gather evidence of overspending.
“Without documents to prove overspending, the commission cannot penalise anybody,” said Uprety. “The candidates never submit spending reports to the commission with the amount exceeding the ceiling.”
A study conducted by the Election Observation Committee Nepal, a poll observation body, found the average spending by a mayoral candidate during the local elections in 2017 amounted to Rs 1.73 million while a deputy mayor hopeful spent Rs1.38 million on an average.
The spending limit set by the commission for them ranged from Rs450,000 to Rs750,000 for municipalities and metropolitan cities. The same spending limit has been set for them five years later for the 2022 local polls scheduled for May 13.
Binod Sijapati, an economist who led a study on the expenditures in 2017 elections for the Election Observation Committee, told the Post that he does not believe the commission would be able to take action against overspenders as it has been passive about taking any meaningful measures to punish the violators of the code.
“The prime minister and senior politicians from across the parties are using helicopters for election campaigns,” said Sijapati. “This is against the code of conduct but the commission has failed to stop the use of helicopters. The commission has failed to make one believe it can punish overspenders.”
As per the code of conduct, candidates can use choppers within the set spending limit after taking approval from the commission. A political party can also use helicopters. But only two chief election campaigners of the party can use helicopters by taking approval from the election body.
Sijapati also wondered if the cost of helicopters used or chartered by top leaders would be included in the campaign expenditure of any candidates in the local elections.
Political leaders themselves have admitted time and again that most of the candidates do not stick to the expenditure limit set by the commission.
In early April, Nepali Congress leader Shashank Koirala, a member of the House of Representatives, said that he spent Rs60 million in the 2017 parliamentary elections.
“I had spent just Rs80,000 in the first Constituent Assembly [elections], which increased to Rs30 million in the second Constituent Assembly [elections] held in 2013,” he said, addressing a function of the Nepali Congress-affiliated Nepal Students’ Union in Kathmandu. “And the expense shot up to Rs60 million in the last elections. Do you want to contest from my constituency? I am ready to cede. You will have to manage Rs60-70 million.”
In the 2017 parliamentary elections, the maximum spending limit for the House of Representatives candidates under the first-past-the-post system was Rs2.5 million. Koirala’s public admission of overspending in last parliamentary elections prompted the election body to seek clarification from him.
In response, Koirala clarified that it was a casual remark to point out how expensive the elections have become these days, according to Kamal Gautam, an under-secretary at the commission who is overseeing the issues related to the code of conduct.
Koirala had submitted a report about his expenditure to the commission stating that his election expenses were lower than the ceiling.
“As per the election expenditure report submitted by Koirala, he had spent Rs2.12 million in the last parliamentary elections,” said Gautam.
When the Election Commission set the expenditure ceiling for the upcoming elections, some political party leaders had demanded that the limit be raised.
According to commission officials, it’s a fact that no candidate has ever submitted spending details stating that he or she spent more than the limit. Complaints about overspending by any candidate are also hardly registered at the commission, they say.
Chief Election Commissioner Dinesh Thapaliya told the Post in October last year that he was not aware of any complaint registered at the commission about overspending by any candidate.
“We would have conducted an investigation if any complaint was registered. The spending limit is part of the election code of conduct and we can launch an investigation only if a complaint is made by specifying that there was violation of the code of conduct by overspending,” Thapaliya told the Post.
According to experts and anti-corruption campaigners, rising election spending is one of the key reasons corruption is thriving in the country.
They say if political parties and their candidates spend money disproportionate to their known sources of income for campaigning, they are more inclined to make attempts to recoup the money after winning the elections, which leads to a vicious cycle of corruption.
“It is more important to control excessive spending because this is the source of corruption,” said Uprety, the former chief election commissioner. “Those elected by overspending, not only try to recoup their money but also engage in amassing property to contest future elections. In doing so, they also take policy decisions to benefit their campaign financiers.”
In recent years, reports about alleged policy corruption in the decision to procure Security Printing Press and leasing out government lands at prime locations to certain business groups, among others, have made national headlines.
“When a candidate has to spend excessively, many candidates cannot spend from their own pockets. They have to rely on other financiers to fund the campaign. Such candidates tend to make policies to serve the interests of such financiers after winning the elections,” said Mukunda Bahadur Pradhan, general secretary of Transparency International Nepal, an anti-corruption advocacy group.
Officials at the commission also admit that excessive spending in elections promotes corruption.
“That’s why we are taking measures that discourage overspending by candidates,” said Election Commissioner Ram Prasad Bhandari.
According to him, the commission announced that it would conduct close monitoring of spending by candidates so as to deter them from excessive spending.
“We are trying to send a message that we are monitoring the campaigns and candidates’ activities closely,” he said. “Such monitoring has also been necessary because money is the biggest influencer in the elections.”
According to Bhandari, the commission will mobilise monitors in areas where the risk of overspending is high.
On concerns whether the commission would dare to take action even after finding excessive spending by candidates, Bhandari said that the commission would take necessary decisions through consultations among the office bearers.
Overspending also leads to unhealthy competition, as it ruins the level playing field.
Experts say political parties themselves could play an instrumental role in controlling excessive spending.
“They can complain to the commission about each others’ spendings. This may help deter each other from massive spending in campaigns,” said Uprety.
Pradhan of Transparency International Nepal says it would be better to increase the spending ceiling by ensuring transparency of funding.
“Candidates do not stick to the limit but they do not submit the report of actual spending,” said Pradhan. “So one way to control overspending could be increasing the ceiling by ensuring transparency.”