While Gearing Up for the Local Election

-This article was originally published by Shalini Gupta in The Himalayan Times on March 5, 2017.

It is very commendable of the Election Commission (EC) to rule out any foreign financial assistance for holding the local polls. That said, the budget earmarked for the EC to conduct the election is a whopping Rs. 10.3 billion—exclusive of the cost of security service. The total budget allocated for the local level election by the Ministry of Finance (MoF) is Rs. 20 billion. With that, the cost of this local election is 25 percent more than the election cost of the second constituent assembly. And this is only the first of the three elections that have to be held by January, 2018. It is hardly debatable that free, fair and regular elections form the foundation of a functioning democracy. Yet, ‘if there is a more cost effective way of exercising democracy’ is definitely a question that deserves some pondering upon. Likewise, while gearing up for the local polls, it would be worthwhile to reflect upon some of our past experiences with elections.

Alternatives for a Cost-Effective Democracy

To conduct an election, a substantial human resource has to be deployed for administration and security. Besides this, there are other material expenses incurred for setting up of polling booths and printing of ballot papers, publicity and trainings, preparation of voter lists and voter IDs. Closure of public schools for the entire week of the election day, and public holidays during the election further consume a great amount of productive time, and also affect economic activities during these days. And when the elections are held at three distant periods of time, all of these costs triple.

It would be highly cost effective if all three elections could be conducted simultaneously. Such a system has been in practice in the United States, and lately, Narendra Modi is also putting up efforts to have such a modality of election endorsed in India. This system has the potential to bring down the cost of elections substantially. For a country like Nepal, the cost-reduction that this system offers is a saving that could be channeled to other sectors.

Free and Fair Election—Need of a Code of Conduct (CoC)

The CoC is usually enforced by the EC right after the announcement of the election date, which is usually 120 days ahead of the polls. In our current case, the EC has delayed the enforcement of CoC and this has created avenues for the incumbent political parties to make administrative decisions such as transfers, and announcement of new programs in order to influence the electorate. A monitoring report on the second Constituent Assembly (CA) election published by Informal Sector Service Centre (INSEC) mentions that there were 912 cases of breach of Code of Conduct, mostly committed by mainstream political parties. Such cases of influencing the electorate weaken the fairness of elections, put newer and smaller parties at a disadvantage, and violate the spirit of a liberal democracy

Ineffective Corrective Measures

Aimed at securing transparency, the Election CoC requires all political parties to make all their election campaign related transactions through formal bank accounts, and has also made it mandatory for donations exceeding Rs. 5000 to be made through banks. Political parties are also required to submit their election expenditure details to the EC.

According to the EC, 1497 candidates who ran for the second CA election did not submit details of their election expenditure even after being asked for clarification by the EC, and were fined a sum of Rs. 500 each. Corrective measures like petty fines are rendered ineffective by the massive scales of financial transactions that are made during the election campaigns. Another such instance is the fact that only recently, when 30 political parties failed to produce their annual financial details (which is required by the law), the EC decided to impose a fine of Rs. 100 on them.

It is not surprising that defaulters do not fear placing themselves above the law when the potential punishment is as good as going scot-free.

And the Cost of No Election

With the elections looking yonder after a two-decade hiatus, we know very well that there is also a huge cost associated with not having an election. The vacuum created by the absence of polls over the decades has led to politicization of various public spheres. For instance, in the unavailability of grounds to practice one’s political leadership, the School Management Committees of public schools have become a stage for political power play, compromising the quality of our public education. The all-party mechanisms that were designed to hold the fort in the absence of locally elected representatives at the state institutions have made all the wrong headlines from financial foul plays to turning into recruitment mechanisms. All the while, this has hindered the overall development of the country. The upcoming elections have the potential to provide the much-needed impetus for greater representation of people, and accountability from the state actors in the days to come.

In order to do justice to the democratic process taking place, it is essential that we ensure effective checks and balances, and accountability from political parties to the electorate. The burgeoning government expenditure must also produce increasingly better performance of democracy which is seen in the observance of the CoC, transparent financial accounts of political parties, and effective expenditure of public resources to generate visible impacts as a strong democracy.