Enhancing Poll Participation
Electoral participation of women and marginalised groups as candidates that constitute above fifty per cent of the Nepalese population has not been encouraging in the on-going elections. This is substantiated by the statistics related with candidacy of the women and marginalised groups in the elections for the House of the Representatives and provincial assemblies. The first phase election to the federal and provincial parliament has already been held while second phase is being planned for following week. Though thirty three per cent parliamentary seats have been reserved for women, nearly five per cent have been nominated to contest direct elections in the on- going elections. It is expected that the parties would make up for deficit through nomination of the adequate number of women in the Proportional Representation (PR) quota.
However, it is worth noting the fact that election to the Constituent Assembly held in 2008 after the end of ten year long Maoist armed insurgency had lent a boost to the participation and representation of the women and marginalised groups especially women, ethnic minorities and the untouchables in the national law-making body. The encouraging representation and participation in the 601-member constituent assembly (national legislature) elected to formulate the new federal republic constitution had been possible due to mandatory constitutional provision relating to inclusion for women and the marginalised groups. The Constituent Assembly elections held again in 2013 as the one elected in 2008 failed to deliver the constitution retained more or less same size of the participation and representation of the women and marginalised groups at the national law-making body.
The situation has been repeated in the local level elections held during the previous months. It was again for reason of the reservation of seats subservient to the new constitutional provision that such an encouraging representation had become possible. But in the First-Past-the-Post seats, political parties fielded few candidates belonging to marginalised communities worth to count. In fact, inclusion and participation differ meaningfully as inclusion is about valuing all individuals quantitatively to give access and opportunities in formal and nominal sense. But it does not capture the agency of the individuals and groups to participate actively engage as shaper and maker of public goods and services. The state of the participation of women and marginalised communities as voter is found to be relatively less.
According to the Election Commission statistics, the percentage of women and marginalised community voters is also less than that of the male and dominant groups. In fact, women and marginalised have been subjected to different kinds of violence – visible, invisible and psychological that debar them from participation in elections. The main obstacle faced by women and marginalised groups have been the multiple discriminations they face arising from the entrenched social discriminations, caste-based hierarchy, chronic poverty, patriarchy and endemic gender-based violence, including sexual assault and rape. Women in politics have been more vulnerable to electoral violence than their male counterparts, particularly due to patriarchal conditions prevalent in the Nepalese society.
Women and marginalised groups are generally resource poor and they are thus categorised as less supportive to conduct and finance political activities. They have less contact with people in influential positions and are often in a position where they confront social stigma when they are victims or witnesses of electoral violence. The marginalised groups continue to suffer physical, sexual or psychological harm, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, within family, and at inter-or intra-political party level. The groups have been prone to be coerced into voting the way the dominant groups would like them to vote. They very often have the social capital characterised by the meaningful relationships and networks within their communities. But these networks are manipulated for others instead of their own political participation.
Voter registration is the key prerequisite for the exercise of the right to vote. For various reasons including lack of awareness, appropriate knowledge and access to information denied to them, women and marginalised groups, including persons with disabilities often face challenges and constraints in successfully accessing the voter registration process. As a result, they risk being disenfranchised and excluded from the electoral process.
The dominant caste groups and political elites exploit the marginal groups’ vulnerabilities. They, in most cases, have been dependent on dominant castes for their livelihood. They are also lacking sufficient financial resources to meet election expenses. Women and marginal groups face direct obstructions from the time of filing nominations right up to announcement of the election results, including: caste and sexually-based verbal abuse; disparagement of the women’s political capacity; harassment, threats or physical assaults; property destruction; restrictions on freedom of movement; and illegal and fraudulent voting practices. The clear trend is to weed out potentially independent-thinking and acting women and marginal political group candidate from successful nomination.
The pervasive and unchecked influence of money in politics is probably worse than before, buttressed by a stronger nexus of politics with crime and business. There is already competition to win support from and mobilise the criminal groups, based on a perception that failing to do so leaves candidates on an unequal playing field. The unchecked breaches of Code of Conduct by political parties has been the single-most important factor undermining attempts to check electoral violence and discriminations experienced by women and marginalised communities. All these kinds of direct and psychological electoral violence experienced by marginalised groups prevent them from exercising effective political agency and participate in the elections. These need to be addressed to enhance electoral participation of women and marginalised groups in democratic elections.