Madhesi Front’s boycott won’t affect poll schedule, says Ila Sharma.
Ila Sharma has been serving as Election Commissioner since March 24, 2013. Since then, she has been involved in leading and overseeing important electoral management functions. She is also coordinating committees on Legal Drafting, Political Party Relations, Media, Gender and Inclusion, Voter rolls, Voter Education and Trainings.
She holds an L.L.M. in Public International Law from Tribhuvan University, a bachelor’s degree from Sampurnanand Sanskrit University, Varanasi, India and a diploma in journalism from Nepal Press Institute. Sharma also worked for The Rising Nepal daily as a senior editor. Sharma, who has over 28 years’ experience in law, media, public relations and development, talked to Amarendra Yadav of The Rising Nepal about the various issues of the forthcoming local elections, including preparations, voter ducation and election security, among others.
How is the voter education programme run by the Election Commission going on?
The core programme related to voter education has already started. As per the timetable, women volunteers and voter educators are going from door to door of the voters. Besides, the Commission has this time emphasised on some special approaches and methods. The number of youth voters and candidates is unprecedentedly high as the age bar for becoming a candidate is 21, and the election is being held after almost 20 years. That is why the EC is conducting youth-oriented voter education programmes. The social media has become the biggest tool in reaching out to the youth voters in this regard.
Secondly, we are also pushing for women-centric voter education as a large number of women are going to vie for the coming elections due to some reservations and legal provisions. Third, a Madhes-oriented voter education programme is one of our top priorities to convince the Madhesi voters to take part in the polls. We are running the Madhes-centric voter education programmes by staging street dramas in the local languages and engaging with civil society members from Madhes.
The local level election is considered a bit complex as it is going to be held after nearly two decades under a totally new structure. Under the circumstances, don’t you think that the voter education was begun a little too late?
All preparatory works are equally important in an election. Voter education is also very essential. Voter education is considered important also to ensure increasing voter turnout in the elections and reducing the number of invalid ballot papers. Our voter educators and volunteers are already at the doorsteps of the voters for the purpose. As far as the delay in kicking off the voter education programme is concerned, we really cannot allocate much time for it due to the time constraint as the EC had only 83 days since the formal poll announcement.
You are also looking after the voter ID cards. When will the printing of the voter ID cards be complete and when will they be given to the voters?
The printing of the voter ID cards is being carried out in full swing. The printing works will be accomplished by May 3. Then, we will start transporting them to their respective districts. We have planned to distribute the ID cards to the voters through the ward offices and polling centres as we did during the 2015 Constituent Assembly elections. The voters will receive their voter ID cards during the election week.
The constitution and the election laws have guaranteed more representation of women, Dalits and other communities in the local units this time through reservation. How will the new provision contribute to the social and political transformation?
The local level is one of the key places for exercising democracy. If we become successful in assuring inclusive and quality representation through the local elections, the elected leadership at the local level will reflect at the provincial level and later at the central level. The EC is aware of it. That is why it is conducting the women, youth and Madhes-centric programmes, including voter education, by coordinating with the media and civil society.
You have just returned from the districts. How is the election environment there? What kind of interest and enthusiasm did you find among the voters?
We just returned from some districts after accomplishing the training programmes for the returning officers. During the programmes, we met voter education workers and volunteers. We also held consultations with local civil society members and observers. They all are mentally prepared for the forthcoming elections. During the deliberations with the representatives of the political parties and media sector, we found that they were quite interested in the election publicity programmes and election code of conduct. This also shows that they are keen and committed to the elections.
We have now less than a month for the elections. How are the EC's preparations faring?
The poll preparations on the part of the Election Commission are moving as per its timeline. We are racing against time a little bit regarding the voter education programme. But focused and quality voter education is our main goal. The offices of the chief returning officers have already been established in all the 75 districts across the country, and we are all set to open offices of the returning officers in all the 744 local units on April 25. The printing of the ballot papers and voter ID cards is in the final stage. Thus, the central office of the Commission has completed almost all its works. Now the district offices have taken the baton and are working fast.
The election body is in regular contact with the government, the Ministry of Home Affairs and the security agencies. Is the EC satisfied with the plan and preparations outlined by the government and its line agencies regarding security?
We have been holding regular interaction and discussion with the Home Ministry and all four security agencies. They have assured us that the coming elections would be held in a free, fair and peaceful atmosphere. We have also held deliberations with the newly-appointed Inspector General of Police Prakash Aryal. We have conveyed some of our concerns to them. We urged them to give preference to women while recruiting the temporary police. As more women are going to file their candidacy in the elections, there is also possibility of character assassination of women candidates. These kinds of incidents might be direct, indirect, physical or mental. So we have also asked the security agencies to be serious about it.
We held rounds of discussions with the security agencies on the accountability and deployment of the temporary police. We suggested they deploy more regular police personnel than temporary ones at the polling centres, which are more sensitive in terms of security challenges. Likewise, we have urged the Home Ministry to deploy the temporary police personnel in the districts next to their own and in neighbouring districts. We are confident that the security agencies are making reliable security preparations for the elections.
The United Democratic Madhesi Front has announced a poll boycott. How will this affect the election plan and security challenges?
The poll boycott announced by the Madhesi Front will not impact the election schedule. However, it will certainly add to the security challenges. But, according to our official reports and the feedback received from our interaction with local media persons and civil society members, people in Madhes are very positive about the elections. Political parties and candidates at the local level are also excited about the polls. If we conduct the voter education programmes properly across the region, it will not take much time to create a conducive environment for the successful elections.
The Madhesi people have enthusiastically registered their names in the voters' list. We are producing voter ID cards for them as well. The review of the number and placing of polling centres has also been completed more recently. Thus, the election body thinks it will not face any problem in holding the May 14 election across the southern plains. As far as consensus among the political parties is concerned, it might happen any time in the near future. If it occurs, it will also extensively help the elections.
The EC has asked the political parties registered with the EC but not represented in the parliament as independent candidates. They are up in arms demanding election symbols in the capacity of political parties. Don't you think that denying their own election symbols to them for the election purpose is not fair to them?
They all are registered with the EC. They have also completed all the formalities like other political parties represented in the House. The Commission has also allocated particular election symbols to them. However, they have been denied their respective symbols. It is because of some clauses and sub-clauses of the Local Election Act 2073 BS. As per the provisions of the Act, the parties outside the parliament will have to run the elections as independent candidates.
It is true that the EC had prepared the preliminarily draft of the Act, but the election symbol-related clauses have been inserted by the political parties and lawmakers in the parliament. The Act was endorsed by the parliament. Thus, the EC had no role in dictating to the political parties outside the parliament to take part in the local elections as independent candidates. Furthermore, the EC has also no right to amend the Act. So, I personally feel it is not fair to deprive them of their own election symbols.
There is still some confusion about the phases of the elections. If the government and political parties agree to hold the forthcoming elections in two phases in the near future, will the EC accept it?
The government has asked the EC to hold the elections in a single date. That is why we are focusing all our concentration and preparations in holding the polls on the scheduled date, May 14. If the government takes a new decision regarding the date of the elections, we will take it into consideration at that time.