Question of credibilityThe decision made by the Election Commission (EC) on June 3 to conduct re-polling in Ward No 19 of the Bharatpur Metropolis was preordained.
The decision made by the Election Commission (EC) on June 3 to conduct re-polling in Ward No 19 of the Bharatpur Metropolis was preordained. The Nepali Congress (NC)-Maoist Centre (MC) alliance demanded re-polling right from the moment the counting of votes was halted a week ago. Vote counting was halted after agents of the MC mayoral candidate, Renu Dahal, allegedly tore 90 ballot papers. There was no mention of resuming the counting process. An instantaneous media campaign demanding the same emerged; it was as though the disruption of the counting process was planned in advance as a pretext to demand re-polling.
The EC itself has been inclined not to act against the wishes of the NC-MC ruling coalition. Immediately after the impeachment motion against Chief Justice (CJ) Sushila Karki was registered, the Chief Election Commissioner Ayodhee Prasad Yadav, in rather unambiguous terms, referred to the proverbial sword of Damocles dangling above the head of each constitutional body should they refuse to succumb to government machinations. The re-polling decision, too, is just one among a series of favours the EC has meekly extended to the NC-MC government, flouting not only laws, norms and practices but also the electoral code of conduct.
Lately, the government’s highhandedness resurfaced in the election-related bill ratified by the Legislature-Parliament last January. The bill authorised the government to fix the dates of the elections instead of the EC. This was followed by the impeachment motions against the then chief of the Commission for the Investigation of Abuse of Authority, Lok Man Singh Karki, and recently, CJ Sushila Karki. Both motions were initiated by the parties in government and mooted in the House at the time of their convenience. The instance of the CJ impeachment further reinforces the theory that the NC-MC would not even bother to look into the substance of allegations in a motion as grave as impeachment once they decided to censure somebody. The message was loud and clear: no head or functionary of a
constitutional body can survive without the mercy of the government. This clearly led most constitutional bodies, including the EC, to be overly cautious and assume a subservient approach. Now, fumbling has become the functioning norm for the EC.
On April 23, when the government decided to hold the local elections in two phases—on May 14 and June 14—the EC gave in easily. Two clear problems presented themselves due to this decision. First, from the standpoint of universal practice, a month-long gap between two phases of the polls is too long. Allowing the votes to be counted and announcing the results in between the phases was also unprecedented, as the outcome, at least theoretically, would influence the pattern of voting in the next phase. Second, May 29, the constitutionally mandated date for the government to present the national budget fell in between the two election dates.
The EC didn’t even have the temerity to say that the day for presenting the budget should not fall between the dates for two phases of the local elections. Initially, the EC suggested that the constitution be amended to change the date of the budget presentation; however, within a couple of days, it changed its stance. For the sake of mere formality, the EC cautioned the government ‘to present the budget in a way that doesn’t violate the election code of conduct.’ Apparently, the budget hasn’t paid heed to this doublespeak and vague code of conduct. Of course, in the larger national interest, the yearly ritual of presenting the budget should not be a part of this political fuss.
The EC didn’t have the muscle to stop the change in government right in the middle of the ongoing election process. It couldn’t even stop the political appointment of general managers for some key state-owned enterprises during the last days of the Pushpa Kamal Dahal-led government. Prime Minister Dahal inaugurated the ambitious Kathmandu-Tarai fast-track road, clearly flouting the electoral code of conduct. The EC behaved as though it did not have any code of conduct and as though it did not notice any of these supercilious overtures.
Going back to Bharatpur again, there are several uneasy questions that warrant answers for the larger interest of our democracy. The NC-MC created a poll alliance in Bharatpur, but how could the nomination of the NC mayoral candidate Dinesh Koirala be withdrawn by a letter from NC President Sher Bahadur Deuba? What election rule validates such a letter, so much so that someone’s candidacy could be withdrawn even without their signature? Even after the ballot-tearing scuffle, why did the EC fail to take action against the candidate who instigated her agents to commit such an illegal act?
The Election (offence and punishment) Act, 2017 clearly defines that the destroying of ballots is tantamount to criminal offence and Section 23(4) of the Election Commission Act, 2017 empowers the EC to cancel a candidacy in the event of someone’s non-adherence to the election code of conduct. But the EC wouldn’t take that course because the candidate in question happens to be the daughter of outgoing Prime Minister Dahal.
The question here is not of the Bharatpur episode, but of the efficiency, independence, impartiality and credibility of the EC itself. The country has just entered into the election process and three crucial elections—local (second phase), provincial and federal—must be completed within a short span of eight months. As such, if the EC continues to act like an extended wing of the incumbent government, the elections conducted by such an institution may serve its masters but not democracy for sure.
Wagle, a founding editor of the economic daily Arthik Abhiyan, is an eco-political analyst