‘Government should start preparations immediately'

Kathmandu, September 25

If the government wants to enable Nepali citizens living abroad to vote in the next elections after four years as per the Supreme Court directive, it has to start preparations right away, given the challenges associated, experts have said.

A division bench of justices Sapana Pradhan Malla and Purushottam Bhandari had on March 21 (full text on September 2) issued the directive to the government.

According to experts and stakeholders, the government should first formulate a law that would guide the whole process and address any possible complications that might arise in the process. They underscored the need for extensive consultations before devising the law, as complications could arise right from the start — voter registration.

Former Chief Election Commissioner Bhojraj Pokhrel said since voter registration was quite a sensitive issue in Nepal itself, it could be more challenging abroad where there were no party representatives.

“Also, registering Nepali labourers in the Gulf and Middle East could be more challenging if we consider voter registration through the internet as we can’t expect everyone to be internet savvy,” he said, adding, “And, not all might be able to visit our embassies if voter registration is done traditionally.”

As far as voting is concerned, various countries have employed various modalities such as postal voting, interned voting, and even traditional ballot boxes.

However, Pokhrel ruled out postal voting option given the poor status of postal service in Nepal. As far as internet voting is concerned, not all — especially migrant labourers — will be able to avail the facility. On top of that, security challenges such as hacking are also there. The third option of ballot papers and boxes is also not less complicated. A huge number of ballot boxes will be required as people hailing from various electoral constituencies in Nepal will be casting their votes abroad.

“Even if we use ballot boxes, only people living around our embassies and consular general offices will be able to vote as setting up booths beyond Nepal’s territory needs government-to-government negotiations,” said Pokhrel, adding sending political parties representatives, witnesses and observers to the booths on voting day could be another issue.

Therefore, all these issues should be addressed through legislation and parties should be magnanimous enough to come up with a clear and uniform opinion before formulating the policy, according to Pokhrel. “But the fact is the government should start the process right away if it wants to enable Nepalis living abroad to vote in the next elections,” he said.

Financial aspect is another matter of concern as countries that have implemented external voting have reported that the process is quite resource intensive. However, another former chief election commissioner Neelkantha Uprety said budget should not be an issue as it was the government’s responsibility to ensure voting rights of citizens in a democracy.

Uprety suggested phase-wise implementation, starting with a few countries and gradually expanding. He said different voting modalities could be used in different countries depending on the need and practicability. He also suggested pre-voting, post-voting and absentee-voting options that could be implemented.

“In countries like the US and Australia, we can use internet-based system for both voter registration and voting. And in countries like Malaysia where the majority of Nepalis are labourers, we can use traditional system,” he said. “But our embassies need to run an extensive campaign to make it a success.”  Upreti, however, agreed all these processes should be guided by legislation and the government should start preparations right away.

Election Commissioner Ila Sharma said the commission was ready to implement external voting system, but for that the government should first devise a law and allocate enough resources to the EC. “Our role begins only after the adoption of the law. But we are ready,” she said.

The home ministry, which is responsible for drafting the law, however, has not yet started the work. Home Secretary Prem Kumar Rai said since they had yet to receive the Supreme Court’s directive orders, no work had been done on that front. “We will start work on law formulation once we receive the orders,” he said.