Congress leaders call for letting Nepalis away vote. Poll body says not feasibleDespite Supreme Court order in 2018, no initiatives taken for out-of-country voting. Debate on the issue when polls near seems to be more for public consumption.
Nepali Congress General Secretaries Gagan Thapa and Bishwa Prakash Sharma on Tuesday asked the Election Commission to make arrangements for allowing Nepalis living abroad to vote in the upcoming elections.
While the Congress leaders’ concern seems to have come in good faith, it also looks like too little too late.
The upcoming elections—general and provincial—are just months away, a maximum of five, if the proposed plan for holding the polls within November is anything to go by.
Thapa and Sharma, during a meeting with Chief Election Commissioner Dinesh Thapaliya, said that the commission must start preparations, respecting the Supreme Court verdict, so as to ensure that millions of Nepalis living abroad can exercise their franchise during the upcoming elections.
But here’s a catch.
There is no law in Nepal for out-of-country voting.
Despite the Supreme Court order in March 2018 to the government to make necessary arrangements to ensure voting rights to all the Nepali citizens living abroad, the country has not yet enacted a law to this effect.
A division bench of Justices Sapana Malla Pradhan and Purushottam Bhandari had issued an order in the names of the government, Parliament and the Election Commission.
Congress’ Thapa himself is a lawmaker.
The bench ordered the government to guarantee voting rights to non-resident Nepalis either through representatives, postal services or electronic voting on the premises of diplomatic missions—whichever best could ensure free, fair and secret voting in a cost-effective and hassle-free manner. It said the government must acknowledge the contribution of the citizens working abroad to Nepal’s economy by making it possible for them to vote.
In line with the court order, Sharma said: “Those who are contributing to our economy must get the voting rights.”
“We have drawn the attention of the commission to this effect,” he added.
Thapaliya, however, said while the commission strongly believes every Nepali citizen, no matter where they are living, must get to cast their votes, it is not possible in the upcoming elections.
During the meeting he said there were multiple complexities in ensuring the voting rights to Nepali living abroad, said Thapaliya.
He said the existing laws don’t allow voter registration outside the country which is a must for one to exercise the franchise.
Similarly, there are legal barriers in setting up voting booths outside the country while the existing laws only allow in-person voting, according to Thapaliya.
“Online and postal voting could be an alternative to in-person voting but there must be legal arrangements for it,” he told the Post. “However, even if the laws are in place, it won’t be possible to immediately arrange voting rights for those living abroad. They can vote only if they come to Nepal given that they have been registered as the voters.”
The commission is for holding the federal and provincial elections by the third week of November. It has sought time for a meeting with Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba to suggest that the general elections should be held no later than November third week. The ruling parties too are holding discussions to fix the election date.
As per the law, the government announces the election date(s) in consultation with the commission.
Former officials at the commission say arranging voting rights to the Nepali diaspora is difficult but not impossible if the government is serious.
Nearly four million Nepali live in different countries for work or study.
“We have a tendency to raise the issue only when the elections are round the corner. This is a complex issue which has to be discussed during the non-election period when the Election Commission is comparatively free,” Ila Sharma, a former election commissioner, told the Post. “It is our moral responsibility to ensure voting rights at least to those who are living in the Gulf.”
The Gulf and Malaysia are the most preferred labour destinations for the thousands of Nepali migrant workers. Close to 1.5 million Nepali work in the Gulf and Malaysia.
As many as 116 countries including India, Bhutan and Sri Lanka from South Asia allow their citizens to vote from abroad.
Sharma said some studies conducted in the past when she was serving at the commission showed that those living in Western countries were not concerned about voting rights.
However, those in the Gulf and Malaysia desperately want to cast their votes in every election, according to her.
She said the commission alone cannot make all the arrangements and the government also should take proactive measures.
“Having a law is a prerequisite to start the preparations. It takes time to make all the arrangements,” she told the Post.
CPN-UML chairperson KP Sharma Oli was prime minister when the court issued the ruling. It, however, took no initiatives to have a law in place. The government led by Congress President Sher Bahadur Deuba was formed in July last year. But in the last 11 months, it too has not taken any initiatives.
The commission, meanwhile, said it is preparing an umbrella bill incorporating different laws which will have a provision for allowing voting rights to all Nepali citizens living abroad.
Although the commission prepares a draft bill, it is the government that has to take it to Parliament. It can also revise the bill drafted by a commission if it wishes so.
Even if, hypothetically, a law is fast-tracked, logistics management is such a huge challenge that voting rights for Nepalis abroad cannot be ensured in the upcoming polls, according to officials at the commission.
And, they say, voting rights cannot be ensured for Nepalis until the destination countries give their consent.
“Let us hope that there is consensus among the parties and a bill gets endorsed from Parliament,” said Thapaliya. “We can make arrangements for Nepalis abroad to vote in the next elections (to be held after five years or so), provided that preparations begin early.”