Ila Sharma is the commissioner of the Election Commission. The EC, apart from successfully holding the local, provincial and parliamentary elections, has also conducted election of the National Assembly recently. The Himalayan Times caught up with Sharma to talk about the EC’s learning experiences from the elections and if electoral reforms are needed.
What initiatives has the EC been taking for electoral reforms after the recent local, provincial and parliamentary elections?
Election is not just a one-day event. There is no perfect election, but we aspire to do better than the previous one. The 120 days that we get for preparation are spent on actual election logistics. We are in the process of reviewing the last elections. We have to better the process and policies on the basis of this review, learning, international learning, sharing, exposure, and other studies. So capacity building and reforms are carried out in the non-election period.
First of all, we need good legal framework — from constitution, laws and regulations to directives issued by the EC — to ensure better elections. These things should be continuously be reformed. The best practice in Nepal is the EC prepares the preliminary drafts of election-related laws. But the sad part is the draft is not sent to the parliamentary committee as it is. It is edited by our line ministry — the Ministry of Home Affairs — or the law ministry by the time it reaches the parliamentary committee for discussion.
We had made some recommendations such as fixing a date for periodic elections. If we do not fix a date for periodic elections, it’s going to be very, very difficult. In the name of political consensus, things were delayed last time too. The EC was forced to hold elections in 83 days. This ad-hoc system will not always work. Either the constitution should fix a date or a month for periodic election, or there should be a provision allowing the EC to fix the date in consultation with the government. We need to fix a specific election date so that we know when we need what and make preparations accordingly.
Another area of reform is political finance. Political parties’ finance should be made transparent, not only during election, but also during non-election period.
Democracy is all about equal opportunities. Citizens are not only voters, they should also be able to stand as candidates. If campaign expenditure is high, the excluded community, who we want to bring to the mainstream, will suffer the most. There will not be a level playing field. We are small country in a transition phase. If we reform now, we can be a model democracy. We have proposed government grant to political parties. We can start gradually with consultations. Another area is the EC’s autonomy in terms of its finances and setting the election date.
Another most important thing is technology. We will lag behind if we do not adopt modern technology such as online registration. For example, there were many mistakes in last voter roll. We had proposed a lot of reforms in the law two years ago. We cannot continue to use the present technology for election after five years.
Another area that needs reform is resources — both financial and human. We do not have enough staffers. Since we do work of special nature, we need specialised manpower. Nepal is a small country. We can execute reforms, which can have miraculous results. In terms of budget, we are given budget after the election date is announced. For example, if we have to procure electronic voting machines to ensure less invalid votes, this is not possible in 80 days. There is also a trend of politicians weakening institutions after reaching in power, and treat EC as a division. This should be stopped.
What is the EC doing to protect voting rights of Nepalis residing abroad?
A study was carried out in 2069. The study team included representatives from the Non-Resident Nepali Association, the Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, among others. The study had recommended conducting a pilot programme in five countries.
The EC is also of the view that voting rights of Nepalis residing in the Gulf countries should be protected. Nepalis residing in western countries rarely return and stay there as they get permanent residency. But Nepalis in the Gulf are bound to return. So if we want to ensure voting rights of Nepalis abroad, the EC should be allocated enough budget and preparation time. As I’ve already said, these things should be done in the non-election period. Doing these things in 83 days is not possible.
The Supreme Court has issued a verdict for implementation of the ‘none of the above’ provision. What’s happening on this front?
The SC has very clearly ordered to include the ‘none of the above’ option in all the elections. We had prepared a draft law accordingly. But again they were edited by the time they reached the parliamentary commission concerned for discussion. None but the EC knows the best what electoral reforms are needed. So our demand is to allow the drafts we prepare reach the parliament unless they include provisions not consistent with the constitution.
There are also talks of putting in place a provision of the state grant for parties to make political parties’ finances transparent. Any development on this front?
The EC is for the state grant for parties during the non-election period on the basis of the number of seats won. This way they will be forced to submit audit reports and election expenses can be lowered. We have recommended the same to the government. We are also for creating a common basket fund where donors will put in money and the donors’ identity should also be disclosed. Funds will be allocated to parties depending on their size. And parties should submit the details of the expenditure.
Do you think there’s a need for a review of the provision of inclusion and proportional representation system of election? There are complaints that people did not know who they elected under the Proportional Representation system.
Our mixed system of election is probably the best system, and even foreigners have appreciated it. Voters can elect local candidates under the FPTP system while the PR system ensures inclusion. This has ensured inclusion in the HoR and the single transferable voting system has ensured inclusion in the National Assembly. The National Assembly itself has been envisioned to ensure inclusion. Apart from ensuring one woman candidate among mayor and deputy mayor, we can put in place the same provision for other seats as well in local level elections, if not in provincial and parliamentary elections.
There is criticism that the EC’s expenses have been haphazard. What’s your impression?
To address this issue, the date for periodic election should be fixed, and the EC can make preparations accordingly. If we need to make preparations at a short notice, we might not get everything to be procured at competitive rates and at the volume we need. In the second phase of local-level election, for example, we had procured blue ink in haste. But later in mock voting, we realised the ink was of low quality which could have resulted in 90 per cent invalid votes. But luckily we had blue ink in stock that we had purchased in the first phase of local level election which rescued us. The EC should not be forgotten in the non-election period, and the press and the civil society should look at things pragmatically.
EC is an institution that upholds the law. But the NCP (NCP) was allowed to register without meeting the requirement of 33 per cent women representation in all their committees. Why so?
The act has clearly stated that parties should ensure 33 per cent women representation in their committees. The EC also wants parties to abide by the law. But the EC’s role is also of a facilitator. Bibeksheel Sajha Party met the requirement at the time of registration, but we registered Rastriya Janata Party-Nepal and Rastriya Prajatantra Party without meeting the criteria because the election was on the horizon and meeting the requirement was very difficult for the parties. As far as the NCP (NCP) is concerned, let’s hope a party as big as the NCP (NCP) will not wait till the general assembly and meet the requirement soon. At the same time, it is also the responsibility of the parties to abide by the law. Also, the issue is sub-judice, so I would speak only this much.
A version of this article appears in print on June 18, 2018 of The Himalayan Times.