Refining Electoral Democracy

Ritu Raj Subedi

With the local election slated for May 14, Nepal is set to pass another milestone on the road towards robust electoral democracy. The local poll is going to give momentum to the democratic republic. Election forms the basis of democracy and renews and refines it. Nepal’s experiment with electoral democracy is filled with both good and bad lessons, and success and failure stories. It has hit several roadblocks but not faltered completely. In our context, election is yet to be a dynamic vehicle of pure democracy whereby the people’s legitimate concerns are well heard and met. It must not be confined to a zero sum game in which a winner takes all. It must not be a play of elites, businesses, lobbying groups and crooked politicians. It should be cost-effective, fair and neutral, enabling even a common person to contest and become a winner.

Unmet promises

Nepal’s democracy has advanced in fits and starts. It first witnessed general elections in 1959 but the parliament it created was short-lived. Since the political change of 1990, altogether five general elections, including two Constituent Assembly elections, were held in 1991, 1994, 1999, 2008 and 2013 respectively. One of underlying characteristics of these elections is that the people often vote for the anti-establishment forces. The party that is on the front line of the political movements emerges victorious. The victory of Nepali Congress, CPN-UML and CPN-Maoist Centre as the largest party in different elections can be seen against this backdrop. No party racks up the largest number of parliamentary seats consecutively because they fail to deliver on their promises made to the people. The people tend to frequently change the leadership of government through the elections in a quest for stability, development, employment opportunity and lasting peace. As these goals remain unmet, the nation is condemned to reel under the endless transition.  

The three general elections, held for the House of Representatives, adopted the first-past-the-post (FPTP) system. In two elections, the NC garnered majority of seats in the House. But, it failed to run the government for full terms owing to the intra-party conflict and intense factionalism. The NC’s failure to honour the people’s verdict and brazen indulgence in power politics gave rise to frustration among the populace. The violent Maoist campaign cashed in on the people’s disenchantment with the system to hit it back. The 1994 general election created a hung parliament and UML formed the first communist government under its chairman Man Mohan Adhikari. It unveiled some socio-economic programmes matching with the spirit of the 1990 constitution that had envisioned of a welfare state and embraced the principles of social justice. Fearing the UML’s popularity will pose a serious threat to their organizational bases, the NC and other parties ganged up to topple the Adhikari-led government, opening the floodgates for all parliamentary ills and discrepancies.

In a bid to reform the electoral system and meet the demands of Maoist and Madhesi forces, the country adopted the electoral system of proportional representation during the two CA polls. The PR provisions, aimed at enhancing the participatory and inclusive democracy, catapulted the representatives from diverse sections of society to the CA. On the face of it, the mixed electoral system contributed to making the CA inclusive. But, it did not create a platform for the qualitative and creative participation of lawmakers in the statute-making process. The humongous and expensive CA drew acerbic criticisms from different quarters as a handful of leaders of major parties undermined its role and stole the show.

Contrary to its objectives, the PR provision gave rise to unintended political maladies. It is supposed to bring the marginalised communities such as women, Dalits, Madhesis and ethnic groups to the decision-making bodies. But, the major and minor parties sold the PR seats to the businessmen and their cronies. Some Madhes-based parties even offered the PR seats to their spouse, girl friend and mother-in-law as a political gift. These fairer sexes were completely novice in the politics but are lucky enough to enjoy the perk and post. This is indeed a mockery of electoral system. The sordid scenes must not be repeated in the coming days.

The PR electoral system also brought many spoilsports to the national politics. The smaller parties have a field day in the parliament when the government is formed and felled on the trot. Even a one-seater party gives a hard time to big parties and grabs a ministerial portfolio in the coalition government. Cheesed off with their capacious behaviour, the major parties finally introduced a new legal provision to downsize their number. As per this, the political parties must secure at least one seat under the FPTP and 3.0 per cent of total votes cast under PR category to earn the status of national parties. The new threshold provision is expected not only to right size the number of parties but will also strengthen the political parties and system. However, the fringe parties argue that the new provision seeks to curtail their democratic rights to be represented in the House as a national force and voice for the fundamental interests of the people and the nation.  

Clean image

The continuous electoral reforms shape electoral democracy. However, it is the democratic culture and constitutional behaviour that are more important than legal and constitutional provisions. Even the statutes of political parties are filled with lofty and rosy words. But, when it comes to applying them, the parties waver largely owing to their parochial attitude and deep-rooted factionalism. The parties are motors of democracy and need to inject ethical virtues into the system so that it becomes dynamic, functional and popular among the people. The parties should pick up candidates with clean image, commitment and fiscal integrity in the elections. In this way, the electoral democracy is revamped, with the people pinning faith in it as a vibrant system that addresses their genuine concerns and emerging challenges facing the nation.

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