Date with democracy

Published : Apr 25, 2008 00:00 IST

Bhojraj Pokharel. He is a retired civil servant.-

Bhojraj Pokharel. He is a retired civil servant.-

Interview with Bhojraj Pokharel, Chief Election Commissioner, who is conducting an election that is unique in many ways.

FROM the absolute monarchy that King Gyanendra was trying to foist on his reluctant subjects to the inclusive democracy envisaged by the countrys radical new election system, Nepal has come a long way. On April 10, its citizens will elect a Constituent Assembly whose primary task will be to write a new Constitution and oversee governance until the next elections.

If the idea of a Constituent Assembly formed through universal adult franchise is a rarity in the world and unique to South Asia, the system of election is the first one to be designed explicitly to ensure the equitable representation of women and all oppressed and marginalised groups in society.

The Constituent Assembly will have 601 seats, 335 of which will be elected through proportional representation (PR) and 240 through first-past-the-post (FPTP) constituency-level contests. The Prime Minister will nominate an additional 26 members so as to ensure representation to any group that may have been left out, as well as to include jurists, academics and others whose presence might help the process of drafting the Constitution.

The Maoists, whose 10-year-long peoples war played a big role in fatally weakening the monarchy, had originally demanded an election system that would be on the basis of proportional representation. But in the face of stiff opposition from the Nepali Congress (N.C.) and the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist) or CPN (UML), the former rebels settled for a mixed system in which only half the seats would be chosen through proportional representation. This forced compromise triggered a protest by the traditionally disenfranchised Madhesis of the Terai region demanding complete proportional representation. In a final compromise, the share of the first-past-the-post seats was cut to 40 per cent.

What makes the election system unique is not just the dual voting system, in which every elector will be given two ballot papers, one to choose the FPTP candidate and the other the party. More revolutionary is the elaborate system of reservation prescribed for the proportional representation list by the election law. In each partys proportional representation list, 50 per cent of the candidates have to be women, 13 per cent must be Dalits, 31.2 per cent must be Madhesis, 37.8 per cent must be from indigenous/oppressed communities and 4 per cent must be from backward areas. The share of women has to be 50 per cent overall as well as within each group for which reservation is prescribed.

The task of managing the election lies squarely on the shoulders of Bhojraj Pokharel, the widely respected retired civil servant who is the countrys Chief Election Commissioner. In an interview at his office in Kathmandu in March, Pokharel spoke about the preparations, the problem of security, and the significance and methodology of the polling process.


The election is barely days away. How are your preparations going?

Today, we are in the final stages of preparation. All polling stations have been finalised, the required logistics are at the district headquarters and are moving down, and returning officers are in their place. These are the final steps of any election preparation. Total focus is on the booth level, micro-level issues. Side by side, the accreditation of observers, both national and international, is on.

It is said this will be the most observed election in South Asia.

At the national level, 148 agencies have been accreditated. Depending on their capacity, the number of observers they field could be anywhere from two-digit to even five-digit numbers. At the international level, March 20 was the last date for accreditation and 14 or 15 organisations have been registered. All told, we are expecting the total number of international observers to be around 600, while the national observers will be very high, at around 75,000.

What is the role of the United Nations in the elections?

The U.N. role is twofold. First, it [the U.N. Mission in Nepal, or UNMIN] is providing technical assistance to the commission both at the central level and at the regional and district levels. The second is its role in monitoring. Since UNMIN is a partner of the Election Commission, the U.N. Secretary General has named five independent international figures who will report to him directly on the conduct of the elections.

As the date for the elections draws closer, there are increasing fears about security. Newspapers are full of reports of clashes and abductions. How worried are you about the security situation? Do you think this may compromise the elections?

People should remember that this election is part of the conflict-management and peace-building process here. Post-conflict situations are difficult everywhere, and Nepal is no exception. So we cannot expect 100 per cent normalcy in the country. But if we compare the situation now with that during the preceding weeks and months, one can say the security situation is going in a positive direction. The government has used its total capacity to maintain law and order.

At the same time, the situation is such that even if everything is OK today, nobody knows what will happen tomorrow. So the challenge for Nepal is to maintain the level of security already achieved and focus on troubled areas. In the southern part of Nepal, some armed groups are operating and threatening candidates and voters. Neutralisation of that threat is important to us. Otherwise, in this part of the world elections are difficult even in normal times.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the election is the system of group representation you have built into the proportional representation system. How was this system devised?

At the institutional level, we are a technical agency, and whatever the legislatures thinking is on the design of the elections, we follow. We cannot cross the constitutional limit. However, if you look at the decade-long conflict in Nepal, its main cause was non-inclusion, or exclusion, of people, in addition to economic causes.

During the peace process, our leaders thought the time had come when those sections of the population that did not get attention and justice for centuries women, Dalits, Janajatis, Madhesis, and so on should have their share. So the guiding principle came from the Constitution [formulated by the outgoing Parliament].

We have a mixed voting system a combination of first-past-the-post and proportional representation and the strategic objectives come from the Constitution itself. So for the FPTP list, it was said that parties should pay heed to inclusion. But for the PR list, there was a specific formula laid down. We prepared the first draft of the election system in consultation with the parties. The present commission played a key role in formulating these drafts but direct credit has to go to Parliament and its leaders. We were the technical agency but the overall spirit of what our leaders wanted was to make the system inclusive.

Many of the parties are said to have had a tough time nominating the required number of women as well as Dalits and others. In India, some of the political parties have played the principle of reservation for women against that of reservation for Dalits and backward castes, to the detriment of women, but Nepal has hit upon a unique system.

The election legislation is very complicated and its management is not easy. To choose candidates in normal times is difficult for most parties, so now you can imagine how difficult this election is for them. It was difficult for most parties even to produce their lists of names.

Once you talk about having x per cent and if a party is contesting a small number of seats, this small number also has to be apportioned on the principle of inclusion. So you can see how difficult things were. But even if implementation is difficult, the spirit has ensured representation.

The parties are required by law to send 50 per cent women; for example, 13 per cent Dalits, and 50 per cent must be women from that group. The essence of our electoral policy is to give proper representation to oppressed groups on the basis of their share in the population. And half of them must be women, as must half of all MPs elected by PR.

With such a complex system, how confident are you that the electorate will understand fully how things work? Is there adequate information being provided?

True, there is a lot of information involved, but who needs what level of information is critical. Voters should know why they are participating, how they can participate and use their voting right.

However, in our social context, even if we try and push, we cannot explain the whole process to everyone. So our voters education programme is designed to give the minimum package of information that can be digested and used so that the ballot is not invalidated.

We are using radio and TV, and male and female volunteer-schoolteachers are making door-to-door visits with election kits. Today, 95,000 volunteers are in the field and our aim is to visit all households in the country.

There have been allegations that some parties, especially the Maoists, have fielded dummy candidates in order to be able to use more vehicles and have more sympathetic observers in polling stations. Whatis the truth of the matter?

Officially, we have not received any complaint of any party fielding dummy candidates. Every citizen has the right to stand. How can we question their intention?

There have also been allegations of misuse of state machinery by Ministers.

Generally, in our part of the world, governments in power have a tendency to use public property [for their campaigns]. This is the general trend we have observed in the past. And we are watching.

The N.C. and the UML say the state media are biased against them because the Information Minister is a Maoist. And the Maoists say the private media are biased against them. How do you deal with such charges?

We receive complaints that the state media are biased and we have asked them to be neutral. We also convened a meeting of the private media and asked them to report in a balanced manner. But reporters say: There are 54 political parties. Some have bigger programmes than others. How can we treat all of them in the same way? These are some of the difficulties editors and reporters mentioned. For the Election Commission, of course, all parties are equal.

How quickly will the results of the elections be known? There are apprehensions about what might happen if there is a long delay, especially between the announcement of the results of the FPTP vote which tends to favour well-established parties and of the PR seats.

Managing the election and the post-election situation is equally important to us. Once the ballot boxes are collected in the district headquarters, our policy is to count both the FPTP and PR ballots simultaneously wherever this is physically possible. But there could be space limitations in some places. If it is not possible to count both ballots together, our policy is to first count the FPTP ballots, announce the results, and then count the PR ballots.

So there will be a gap between the announcement of the FPTP and PR results. In fact, it will probably take eight to 10 days to give the full results of the FPTP seats. Of course, in the majority of districts, the PR ballots will also have been counted. And our policy will be for the counting centres to announce result updates every two hours, including PR.

But the PR results will have to be centrally tabulated here to decide which parties will have how many of the 335 PR seats. And to identify the winning candidates on the PR side will again take time. Parties will have seven days to finalise their list and we will have to again verify that they have met the legally prescribed percentages in terms of women, Madhesis, and so on. So, even if we know the party distribution, the identity of the winning candidates on the PR side will take time.

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