Election monitoring : Is EC functioning like an NGO?

Election monitoring is a regular phenomenon to keep watch on the conduct of any free and fair election. In Nepal, it appears to be a seasonal duty of regular observers who have monitored all polls in past 18 years. It is reported that the Election Commission (EC) has permitted more than 148 organisations to observe the Constituent Assembly (CA) election, with an addition of around 100,000 national observers.

According to media reports, the EC has discontinued the practice it had adhered to since 1991 parliamentary election of not inviting foreign and national observers. It has now reportedly signed agreements with four international organisations for observation of CA polls. It had already requested international organisations through the foreign ministry to observe the election should they express their interest. Since the CA polls is different from any parliamentary election, the EC appears to be exacting about international observation, overlooking the fact that at times it is also not above the board.

An election being a long legal process starting with the registration of eligible voters, the count down to election has already begun with the declaration of poll date. But the process of monitoring the fairness of the polls is yet to begin.

While the government isn’t serious about following the code of conduct (CC) for CA election issued by the EC, the EC too appears to be closing its eyes over the violations. Observers feel that the EC could have come out openly against the release of one million rupee to each member of the legislature-parliament for the development of his/her constituency when all development projects ought to be brought to a halt till the polls are concluded. This also raises the question about the impartiality between those getting the money and those deprived of it.

EC should also warn SPA government against its deliberations to revive the local bodies as it will violate the CC. Since hardly 70 days are left for CA election, observers are surprised over the silence of EC and election observers on this score. It seems either the observation committees are running out of steam after having exhausted funds received from their international donors, or they are not at all interested in observation right now as April 10 is far away (traditionally, observation of election has been carried out only on polling days exclusively), or they might not want to antagonise the government of the Seven Party Alliance to protect their own vested interests.

People are happy to see the EC going on hi-tech mode with high profile and high flying election commissioners culling insights from around the world on CA polls, except from American continents. Not to mention having international experts including those from the United Nations and other European countries coming up with all sort of advices and a fat purse to finance all expenses for the polls, such as providing transparent ballot boxes in place of traditional iron boxes. The sky-high expenses of CA election of Rs 2.72 billion as against Rs. 180 million in 1991, 220 million in 1994 and 350 million in 1999 parliamentary elections hardly convinces any observer in spite of the use of two sets of ballot papers, the increased number of voters and the cost of materials.

The government has unveiled on January 24 its election security plan to be implemented in three phases and its decision to deploy 132,000 security personnel. The government will recruit about 70,000 security personnel on contractual basis 15 days ahead of the Constituent Assembly polls.

Observers feel that it will be difficult to choose capable and neutral personnel, especially during politically charged atmosphere of the country and to impart them proper training in such a short span of time. It is surprising that the earlier practice of recruiting about 44,000 contractual police was dispensed with by the EC since the last local bodies election held in 1997, till the general election of 1999, as elections were conducted in two phases, in spite of the opposition by some political parties.

It will be very difficult to rely on the contractual police force, as they can neither be properly trained for the purpose nor held accountable for their lapses. The contractual police at the most can only be expected to serve as party workers in uniform. It is only natural to harbour apprehension about their efficacy during the polls if the security guards do not maintain neutrality.

It will, definitely, be unwise to expect efficiency and neutrality from the contractual police force whose impartial recruitment cannot be guaranteed. Since the Maoists have decided to deploy 200 Young communist league cadres at every polling station, as reported in the press, the Election Commission may have to face the additional challenge of maintaining peace and fairness at the polling stations.

Prof Mishra is ex-election commissioner