The polling for the historic parliamentary and provincial elections of Nepal concluded on December 7 peacefully, despite last minute attempts by some desperate elements to disturb them. The counting is now going on, 24/7, in three shifts and is likely to be completed by December 15. The elections, held in two phases on November 26 in 32 pahadi and himali districts and on December 7 in the remaining 45, are very significant, being the first under the 2015 Constitution of Nepal.
Earlier this year, local government elections were held in three phases on May 14, June 28 and September 18 in six metropolitan cities, 11 sub-metropolitan cities, 276 municipalities and 460 rural municipalities. The holding of two sets of national elections conducted for all three tiers within a span of seven months is a remarkable achievement of the Election Commission in fulfilment of the constitutional mandate.
These elections mark the culmination of the process that started in November 2006 with the signing of a Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) to set up a federal structure. From a Hindu kingdom, Nepal has now formally transformed into a federal democratic republic. The 11 long years of transition have seen important changes. A Constituent Assembly (CA) was elected in 2008 for a term of two years.
It, however, failed to bring out the new constitution despite giving itself repeated extensions, till the Supreme Court put its foot down to sack it in 2012. The second CA, elected in 2013, proved much more efficient and productive, coming up with the new constitution within two years. Credit must be given to the political parties for a spirit of accommodation and the decision to defer for the post-election period the most contentious issues, including the delineation and the naming of the federal provinces.
A highlight of the elections was the enthusiastic popular participation as evident from the high voter turnout of 75 per cent in the local elections and approximately 68 per cent in the two phases of simultaneous
elections to parliament and provincial assemblies.
Full credit to the Election Commission of Nepal (ECN) for conducting the elections rather smoothly despite time constraints and lack of crucial powers to decide the timing of the elections, which was left to the government. Speedy production and distribution of voter identity cards and easy access to voter rolls contributed significantly to the high turnout.
The elections have been widely regarded as free, fair and independent. The arrangements were made for 12.25 million voters at 15,344 polling booths in 7,752 polling centres by almost 1,70,000 polling officials. The ECN accredited 45,000 domestic observers and nearly 300 foreign observers. The European Union and the Carter Centre, which sent the biggest teams, have both commented on the fairness of the elections. I also had the privilege of being a member of the observation team from different election commissions of South Asia invited by the ECN. It was delightful to see enthusiastic voters participation in what clearly looked like a festival of democracy. Importantly, this was despite very tight enforcement of the stiff code of conduct. There was hardly any noisy procession or defacement of walls with posters and slogans, etc.
A noteworthy feature is that the elections were held simultaneously to the provincial and national parliament, something which has seen a hot topic of debate in India for the last couple of years. Contrary to apprehensions, the voters, despite a high 35 per cent illiteracy rate, had no problem handling as many as three ballot papers — one for the provincial assembly, one for parliament, under the first-past-the-post (FPTP), and the third for proportional representation (PR) system for both the tiers. This was made possible by a rather effective voter education programme put together in a short time due to the inevitable debate whether voter education is the job of the EC or of the political parties. The training of staff played an important role too. Some reports, however, suggest that many voters were confused with a single ballot for two elections (parliament and province) in PR and ended up voting only on one part. We would soon know how many blank votes are found. Lesson for the future: Have separate ballot papers.
It would be interesting to understand the democratic structure of the state as it is significantly different from India’s. The parliament would be bicameral of which the lower house — the House of Representatives (HoR) — would consist of 275 members with 165 members directly elected by FPTP (as in India) and 110 indirectly elected by PR. The seven provincial assemblies together have 550 members of which 330 are directly elected through FPTP and 220 by PR.
The upper house, called the National Assembly, consisting of 59 members is yet to be constituted. It will have eight members each from the seven provinces, elected by an electoral college consisting of the elected legislators. The remaining three will be nominated by the president.
A bill regarding the formation of NA is still pending owing to serious disagreements among political parties on the election process. Constitutional experts now foresee serious post-election challenges, including appointments of province chiefs, determination of provincial capitals and giving shape to political structures in the provinces. It’s a curious situation that the provinces are not even named yet and are identified by their numbers. It may be recalled that some amendments to the constitution which were being demanded by the Madhesis and janjati groups and claimed 50 lives, were postponed in the interest of moving forward. These will come back to haunt the government.
The biggest challenge, of course, is to give stability and development, the slogan of the winning Left combination. This, in turn, will depend on how the two main parties of the Left alliance, which have long been at loggerheads, even violently, will stick together sinking their sharp differences.
A potential lesson for India is to learn the working of the PR system to make democracy truly representative — a concern being voiced increasingly, especially since the BSP with 20 per cent votes in Uttar Pradesh ended up with zero seats from the state under the questionable FPTP system in the 2014 general election.