Weekly Musings: Lessons From Local Polls
By Shyam K.C.
The local polls that took place in selected parts of the country earlier this week were an indication of the enthusiasm of the voters not merely to cast their votes but also to demand from their newly elected local representatives to rise above narrow party interests and to address the needs of different localities which may have different needs. The fact that some 73 per cent of eligible voters exercised their voting rights indicates not only the high turnout of voters, but also the fact that the people have high expectation from their representatives. This clearly means that the local bodies have to rise above the interests of the parties and serve the interests of local people. The voters do not want to see their representatives playing into the hands of vested interests groups, whether such groups belong to political parties, different business interests or real estate mafia.
In order for the local bodies to perform in accordance with the wishes of the people, proper laws are required and local bodies need to be freed from interference from the centre (or provincial governments after parliamentary and provincial elections). In the absence of such laws that empower the local bodies take final decisions on matters relating to their respective localities. Interference from the top – whether central or provincial government – will tend to devalue the local bodies and, by implications, the wishes of the people who elected their representatives.
There is obviously a lot of differences between parliamentary or assembly elections and elections to local bodies. The issues in local bodies are much more local than the other two elections where national or regional matters come to the fore. It is, therefore, necessary to ensure that the local bodies enjoy their due rights. Hence, proper legal – or even constitutional – rights should be given to them. It will be in the interest of the country if political parties convene a gathering of non-partisan experts and accept their advice and act accordingly. This is the least political parties can do if they are really dedicated to democracy and not power hungry (as many see them today to be- rightly or wrongly).
The fact that the local polls were, by and large, peaceful is a tribute to the voters spread in different parts of the country. But at the same time, the fact that in many of the polling constituencies, the ballot paper is of the size of broad-sheet newspaper with so many candidates to choose from cannot but confuse the voters. Having cast votes in almost all elections post-1959, this scribe had never before seen a ballot paper that compares anywhere in size to the ballot paper in the just held local polls. Such a large number of candidates represented by so many election symbols on a large-sized ballot paper can only result in invalid votes. One is almost certain that the number of invalid votes, especially in places like Kathmandu, will be pretty high. There is a need to remedy the situation in all future elections. The Election Commission might do well to consult experts, preferably domestic ones but foreign ones as well in devise ways to overcome the problem.
For in any democracy, a citizen has the right to contest elections whether from a political party or independently. But the large number of candidates will naturally entail a large ballot paper. In addition, a proper education of the voter on how to vote will almost certainly reduce chances of invalid votes. For instance, in the local poll ballot paper for electing two ward committee members in Kathmandu , there is one symbol followed by the two of same symbols .
In local polls, people not only vote for a political party, but also for the person they consider will deliver what the locality needs. So if the voter wants to elect one person from a particular party for ward committee and another from another party, how does he do it? The Election Commission as well as the political parties must not shy away from imparting proper voter education to the voters, for this a part of their duty. But apart from this, the Election Commission must also not shy away from seeking advice from former election commissioners including chief election commission on how best to simply the balloting process. One is talking of such a process that will not only ease the voting process but also ensure that there is a little more speed in the counting.
The fact that the local elections are being held in two phases need to be seen in proper perspective. There were allegations that the 1959 parliamentary election held in many phases influenced the elections in each successive phase, resulting in the overwhelming victory for one particular party and virtual annihilation of most other parties. If these allegations have any weight, it was wrong to schedule the local election in two phases and if logistical and other problems dedicate holding of the polls in phases, it would have been prudent to start counting of all votes only after the completion of all phase-wise polls.
The Election Commission, in all its wisdom, must have some valid and plausible reason for scheduling the vote counting immediately after the first phase polls but there is little doubt the results will effect, to some extent, the voting pattern in the second phase. This raises the question of whether the government should in any democracy set the date for elections. In most countries that follow western system of democracy, the election commission is the one which fixes the date for polling. The Election Commission, in our case, needs to be the central focus for holding election including the question of determining the dates for election. The dates should not be at the convenience of the ruling party or coalition of ruling parties.
The Election Commission is an independent non-partisan constitutional body and should be allowed to work without catering to whims of those who hold the reins of power. The government might decide on holding elections but when and how is the prerogative of the Election Commission. A democratic government must be seen to be working in a democratic manner, upholding democratic norms. Keeping any rein on the Election Commission – or for that matter any constitutional body – is against the basic norms of democracy. The sooner the government makes necessary amends by passing laws or amending the constitution the better it will be for democracy and for the country’s future. These are but a few lessons that emerge from the recent local polls.