Unequal votes: The undemocratic election system of Nepal

Critical development efforts cannot succeed without a legitimate and democratically elected government that is responsive and accountable to its citizens. Elections provide an important opportunity to advance democratization and encourage political liberalization. A country cannot be truly democratic until its citizens have the opportunity to choose their representatives through elections that are free, fair, and just. However, that is not true in the case of Nepal.

To dig deeper into how the process of election has been undemocratic in Nepal we need to understand the process of division of constituencies in Nepal. Following the promulgation of the new constitution, the Election Commission delineated 330 constituencies for the provincial assembly elections and 165 constituencies for the federal parliament election. Regarding delimitation of electoral constituencies,  Article 84 (1) of the constitution states: “One hundred and sixty-five members to be elected through the first past the post electoral system, with one being elected from each election constituency of one hundred and sixty-five election constituencies delimited in the country based on geography and population.”

Missing link

The way the constitution attempts to divide the electoral constituencies is one interesting point to make in this particular context: It is geography and population. The nature and relative arrangement of localities and physical features are described as geography. What does geography entail in terms of the division of electoral districts? It’s not simply limited to area. The constitution further states that while delimiting election constituencies, regard must be had too, inter alia, the density of population, geographical specificity, administrative and transportation convenience, community and cultural aspects of the constituencies. This clearly shows that the area of a particular district is not what the constitution means by “geography”. Rather specificity of geography, convenience and various abstract aspects have been included under the term.

Boundary delimitation is an important means of ensuring equality in the weight of votes as well as representation in the electoral body. But there is no equality in the weight of votes when it comes to the constituencies of Nepal.

This denotes that while the population remains the major mathematical basis with 90 percent weightage for dividing the constituencies, there are other factors, non-mathematical and abstract, which can impact the division, and are to be sorted out by the Electoral Delimitation Committee.  Another catch is that the term “population” seems straightforward. The definition of the population is generally understood to be the total number of people residing in a particular place at a particular time. Leveraging that the CDC took into account the entire population of a certain district referring to the census 2011, including non-eligible voters, resulting in an unjustifiably high number of constituencies in city areas at the cost of the share of other districts.

Let’s do math

Let’s take a mathematical dive into what happened. The ideal population per seat can be calculated using the formula:

Population per seat = 2,64,94,504 (total population of Nepal)  / 165 (total number of constituency)  ≈ 1,60,573

This means that ideally, if the division is to be made mostly based on population, every constituency should have a population of approximately 1,60,573.

Boundary delimitation is an important means of ensuring equality in the weight of votes as well as representation in the electoral body, particularly with shifts in the size and makeup of voting populations. However, there is no equality in the weight of votes when it comes to the constituencies of Nepal.

For example, Kathmandu has a population of around 1,744,240 (2011 census). And since the population per seat for the country is 1,60,573.

Seats = 1,744,240 (population of Kathmandu)/1,60,573 (population per seat) ≈ 10 seats/constituencies

However, that is not the voting population of Kathmandu. The total number of eligible voters in Kathmandu was 652126.  Ideally, Kathmandu would have needed only six constituencies if only the eligible voter’s population was taken into consideration.

Population per seat = 2,64,94,504 (voting population of Nepal)/165 (total number of constituency)  ≈ 109021

Seats = 652126 (voting population of Kathmandu) / 109021 (population per seat)  ≈ 6 constituencies

Additionally, this process would have been justifiable if the total population of a certain district was equivalent to the voting population of that district–the district with the highest population should have had the highest number of voters. However, that is not true. Kathmandu has 603,620 voters but holds ten federal constituencies whereas Morang, with the largest number of voters 644,785 in Nepal, is allocated only six constituencies. Similarly, Lalitpur has more constituencies compared to neighboring districts. All three districts, Dhading, Makawanpur, and Kavre, outnumber the number of voters of Lalitpur with 265996, 300733, and 310063 voters respectively. However, Lalitpur holds three federal constituencies compared to only two in all three surrounding districts of the Kathmandu valley. Voters are the real constituents of electoral constituencies, not the population. CDC criterion benefits capital cities at the cost of others.

This process of political manipulation of electoral district boundaries with the intent of creating an undue advantage for a party, or group within the constituency is called gerrymandering. The manipulation may consist of “cracking” (diluting the voting power of the opposing party’s supporters across many districts) or “packing” (concentrating the opposing party’s voting power in one district to reduce their voting power in other districts). The method is also used to create maps that determine election results independent of voter preferences. Gerrymandering allows politicians to select their constituents rather than the voters selecting their representatives. This frequently happens, especially when the process is controlled by one political party and border drawing is left to legislators, which has been a rising issue globally.

Limiting by 20 years

Furthermore, another issue that lies in the delimitation of constituencies is that according to the constitution of Nepal, the new constituencies cannot be altered for another 20 years (until 2027) and cannot be challenged in any court of law. However, according to the census in 2022, there has been uneven growth in various districts of Nepal. Due to urbanization in the southern states of Nepal, the population has been booming there. Currently, the growth rate of Rupandehi is 27.1 percent, Chitwan’s 24.5 percent and Morang’s 18.9 percent whereas the growth rate of Kathmandu is only 15.6 percent. According to this report, we can see that it will be unjust to freeze delimitation for 20 years as the weight of votes differs from one region to another.

There lies a similar issue in our neighboring country India as well.  In 1976, Articles 82 and 170 were amended to impose a moratorium on the number of seats allocated to states and fixing of boundaries of constituencies until the publication of 2001 Census figures. In 2001, the 84th Constitutional Amendment extended the freeze on the number of constituencies by another 25 years–to 2026. At the moment, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh each have 40 seats in the parliament. Tamil Nadu, one of the southern states, has 39 seats, whereas Andhra Pradesh has 25, and Karnataka has 28.

Due to improved health, education, and family planning policies, the population growth in the southern states has slowed down significantly. As a result, they stand to lose even more seats to the northern states if delimitation takes place. All political parties agreed that the demographic bulge of the states where population growth was significantly higher than the national average should not disfavor those states that had adopted family planning laws.

Currently, out of the 545 parliament members, the northern states of Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh combined hold 204 seats. If these seats are revised accordingly this figure will go up to 270 which is almost half the size of the parliament. In comparison, the total number of seats for the southern states of Kerala, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, and Andhra Pradesh will have come down from 129 to 108. Most of the additional seats for the north will have been picked up at the expense of the southern states. This is the crux of the fear about the so-called ‘north-south’ divide

Any electoral system based on territorial constituencies needs to include a process of adjusting the boundaries of such constituencies from time to time, using impartial and transparent procedures. This is the essence of delimitation. Freezing the delimitation for 20 years or longer has adverse effects in a just and fair election system. Having population as the criterion for electoral constituency delineation will not do any justice to the actual constituents, as the voters are the real determinants of election results.

Therefore, the number of voters should be the basis of delineating electoral constituencies. For a democratic nation, delimitation of constituencies is important to ensure equality of votes and for that to happen the delimitation of boundaries should be done on the basis of eligible voters before every election.

Sindhuj Thapa is a researcher at Samriddhi Foundation, an economic policy think tank based in Kathmandu. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not represent the views of the organization. [email protected]