Journalists and academics coming to Kathmandu for conferences often remark how unrestricted and open it is. But they also have a warning: how easy it is to lose it all through populism, exclusion and a flawed electoral process.
Even as the results of the 13 May local government elections trickle in, we are reminded just how precarious our democracy still is. Even though the nationwide average for voter turnout this time was a respectable 64%, this was lower than the 2017 local election which was nearly 75%.
That could be because it was the first local polls in 20 years, but the blame for this year’s poor show can be placed squarely on voter apathy, disillusionment and a feckless electoral mechanism.
The 52% turnout in Kathmandu can be due to the very low expectations of the capital’s citizens towards the mainstream parties that have mis-ruled Nepal for the past 30 years. The protest vote for Balen Shah is a rejection of the UML’s Bidya Sundar Shrestha who failed spectacularly.
But the Election Commission and the political parties have not exactly made it easy for citizens to exercise their mandate. Nearly 4 million Nepalis living and working abroad were not allowed to vote because, despite a 2018 Supreme Court ruling, there is no voting by mail.
This represents a serious democratic deficit and a blot on our electoral system. The excuse is that mail voting could open up avenues for fraud, but their real fear is that since most young Nepalis abroad have left because they see no future here, their votes would be against mainstream candidates.
There is also reluctance to introduce electronic voting machines (EVMs). Parties worry about rivals cheating (or, being unable to cheat themselves) could be a reason. Countries at the same socio-economic status as Nepal have electronic voting, there is no reason why we cannot.
The Election Commission has taken more than a week to count just 30% of the 200,000 or so ballot papers in Kathmandu. This is a shame. In Bharatpur, the memory is still fresh of attacks by Maoists at the counting centre in 2017, tearing up ballot papers. Fortunately, Pushpa Kamal Dahal’s daughter Renu is ahead in the polls this time, otherwise there is no guarantee that the 2017 performance would not be repeated.
Asked about the slow counting, the Chief Election Commissioner passed the buck saying his job was to conduct elections and someone else was responsible for counting. That is a cop-out. But as much to blame are political parties who have blocked every effort to introduce electronic voting.
There had been similar delays five years ago, and the Election Commission should have learnt its lesson. This being Nepal, EVMs were not even tested in selected urban areas, and it is doubtful if there is the political will, competence, or the wherewithal to introduce electronic voting in the November provincial and federal elections.
To be sure, it is the not all the Election Commission’s fault that the 5-party coalition and its common candidates for municipalities and metros made the ballot papers so complicated. In some areas you had to be a rocket scientist to figure out where to wield the swastika.
This is the reason more ballot papers were disqualified in this election than in any previous one since 1992. In some voting centres of Kathmandu the proportion of rejected ballots is said to be as high as 40%. Shocking revelations like this force us to question the entire outcome of elections themselves.
What the Commission could have easily done is divide up the ballot papers between mayoral and ward candidates, or added tellers in centres where it knew there would be bottlenecks. How come Bhaktapur was able to count all its ballots in a few days and the other municipalities in the Valley are so far behind?
These delays increase the temptation for trailing candidates and parties to disrupt the counting process, cheat, or resort to violence. Voters and the entire nation have been paralysed for nearly two weeks now because the results are slowly trickling in from one municipality and ward at a time.
Even then, we do not see any sense of urgency or realisation that the voting process needs to be fairer and faster. It does not behoove a modern democracy to have such an obsolete and archaic system of casting and counting.