Nepali Congress leaders’ call for review of proportional election system creates buzzProvision misused since its introduction as leaders handpick candidates close to them.
The need to revise the existing electoral system came up in the recent Central Working Committee meeting of the Nepali Congress. A number of central members demanded a complete direct election to the House of Representatives by scrapping the provision for proportional representation of ethnic populations, while making the National Assembly fully representative of the country’s diverse groups. Though the party made no decision on the matter, it has brought the issue to the fore with other parties too joining the chorus. Rastriya Prajatantra Party chair Rajendra Lingden has even said the federal parliament should be unicameral and the size of the lower house must be reduced.
As the debate over the revision of the electoral system heats up, the Post explains the existing electoral system and the reasons behind the demand for scrapping the proportional representation system.
How is the federal parliament elected?
Nepal’s parliament is bicameral with the lower chamber called the House of Representatives and the upper one National Assembly. A mixed electoral system is in practice to elect the 275-strong House. Of the total, 60 percent (165 lawmakers) are elected through the first-past-the-post system while 40 percent (110) are elected under the proportional representation system. The candidate who secures the highest vote in a constituency gets elected in direct polls. Under proportional representation, each party gets seats based on their vote share.
The seat sharing under the category is done allocating 28.7 percent to the indigenous groups and janajatis, 31.2 percent to Khas-Aryas, 6.6 percent to Tharus, 13.8 percent to Dalits, 15.3 percent to Madhesis, 4.4 percent to Muslims, and 4.3 percent to residents of remote areas. At least 33 percent women’s representation is mandatory.
When was the proportional representation system introduced?
Nepal practised a bicameral system of the parliament after the restoration of democracy in 1991. However, it wasn’t representative. Proportional representation in all state machineries had been one of the political agendas of then CPN-Maoist during their decade-long insurgency. Under their pressure, the Interim Constitution in 2007 institutionalised the representation of the excluded communities both in the Parliament and different state organs. For the first time, the Constituent Assembly elected in 2008 included the provision of proportional representation. In the 601-strong assembly, around 60 percent (335 members) were elected under this category while just 240 were directly elected. The same provision got continuity in the second Constituent Assembly.
Similarly, it also guaranteed 45 percent reservation for minority communities in bureaucracy in the vacancies announced by the Public Service Commission and other government agencies.
Senior Advocate Khim Lal Devkota, who was a member of the interim constitution drafting committee representing the Maoists, said the proportional representation system was introduced to ensure the representation of socio-economically marginalised communities in Parliament. “I remember we spent a week at a hotel in Dhulikhel before we agreed to include the mixed electoral system in the Interim Constitution. Most of the Congress and the CPN-UML members in the drafting committee were reluctant to accept proportional representation,” he told the Post.
Why has the proportional representation system been dragged into controversy?
The system became controversial right from the time of the first Constituent Assembly as the people from the business community were chosen under the Madhesi category while the wives or close relatives of top politicians got elected under women’s category. The misuse of the provision has continued in every election since.
For instance, Arzu Rana Deuba, wife of Congress President Sher Bahadur Deuba, and Bimalendra Nidhi, who has served as lawmaker and minister several times, among others, have become Congress lawmakers from the proportional representation system. Similarly, Nain Kala Thapa, a former minister and wife of party vice-chair Ram Bahadur Thapa, is a lawmaker from the UML. Such malpractice seen across the party line has invited much criticism.
How was the issue raised in the Congress Central Working Committee?
Gagan Thapa, the party’s general secretary, has been vocal about the need for a change in the electoral system as the current system can never produce a stable government. He says there are several other ways to make the House inclusive but a mixed system needs a rethink. On July 18, the party’s central leaders Madhu Acharya and Guru Raj Ghimire, among others, presented a proposal to the party committee demanding that the lower house be exclusively elected under the first-past-the-post system. Senior leader Shekhar Koirala also had a similar view, as did the leaders close to Deuba.
“No party can get a majority under the existing electoral system. Time has come to scrap the proportional system in the lower house,” said Congress leader Pushpa Bhusal. Congress leaders say election for the upper house can be fully proportional to ensure the participation of the people from the marginalised and underrepresented communities. They also argue that some constituencies under the FPTP can be reserved for women and socio-economically marginalised communities to safeguard their representation in the House.
What is the position of other parties?
Some UML leaders have long been advocating changes in the electoral system. Like their Congress colleagues, they also want all the members of the lower house to be elected directly so that the country can get a stable government. However, the party hasn’t discussed the issue in its committees, unlike what the Congress recently did.
In sharp contrast to the Congress, its key coalition partner, the CPN (Maoist Centre), has been pitching for a fully proportional representation. In its election manifesto for last year’s election, the party said adopting a fully proportional representation system is necessary to cut election costs and to increase the representation of marginalised communities.
“I agree that the provision of proportional representation has been misused. However, that in no way means the system itself is faulty,” Devkota told the Post. “We need to correct the way the representatives are selected. Demand to scrap the proportional representation system is regressive.” Like the Maoist Centre, the Madhes-based parties too want the continuation, even expansion, of the mixed electoral system.
What do experts have to say?
Constitutional experts say the provision for proportional representation has failed to serve its purpose. Former Speaker Daman Nath Dhungana says several provisions were incorporated in the constitution as a compromise among the parties carrying various ideologies. "Proportional representation [system] is one," Dhungana, told the Post. "Time has come for a serious review of the constitution’s implementation. A high-level parliamentary committee needs to be formed for that."