election | democracy | voting | rights | representation | federalism
Election is around the corner in Nepal once again after the National Assembly election in January 2022 and the recent local government election fever that ended with electing 753 local governments.
The country is now gearing up to choose a new set of federal and provincial assembly members and shape the country’s political and economic future for the next five years. A total of 17,988,570 registered voters (49.1% of them women) will have the opportunity to vote this general election on 20th November to elect 275 members at the House of Representatives and altogether 550 members at seven province assemblies, both of which will be held in one phase.
Once the results are declared, winning candidates obtain their democratic mandate, and new legislatures and governments will be formed at federal and provincial levels.
Understanding the new federal structure
The constitution of the Federal Democratic Republic of Nepal has provisioned three tiers of government: local, provincial, and federal consisting of 753 local governments, seven provincial, and one federal/central government.
Devolution of power and effective delivery of public services are fundamental reasons behind this division of powers. Based on the constitution's federal provisions, there are 35 exclusive political, fiscal, as well as administrative powers/jurisdictions in the hands of the federal government, 21 with the provincial governments, and 22 with the local governments. “Similarly, federal and provincial governments share 25 concurrent powers, whereas federal, provincial, and local governments share 15 concurrent powers between them.”
For this, three levels of elections are held in Nepal — the recently held i) local government elections and the upcoming ii) federal parliamentary elections and iii) election of the provincial assemblies which are happening concurrently this 20th November.
Article 83 of the Constitution of Nepal states that Nepal shall have one Federal Parliament consisting of two houses: the House of Representative (also referred as the lower house) and the National Assembly (upper house) which we understand as a bicameral system. A total of 334 members — 275 members in the lower house and 59 members at the upper house will make up the federal parliament.
The federal parliament serves key functions such as — i) forming government ii) formulating federal laws iii) discussing government plans and programs iv) parliamentary monitoring, hearing, and overseeing government performance v) discussing and approving annual federal budget and vi) ratifying international treaties.
The provincial parliament is however unicameral in nature with seven provincial parliament comprising 550 members altogether.
The first parliamentary and provincial level elections were held in two phases in 2017 on 26th November and 3rd of December after the new constitution was promulgated in 2015 and two rounds of Constitution Assembly in 2008 and 2012.
Although achieving both elections at once will reduce the costs of election, the ongoing larger focus on lower house election will overshadow the provincial concerns and agendas, depriving voters to make the right judgment.
How is the federal parliament elected?
House of Representatives (Pratinidhi Sabha)
Voters will elect 275 members to the House of Representatives (HoR) through a mixed electoral system — 165 representatives (60%) elected through a first-past-the-post (FPTP) system — while the remaining 110 (40%) through a Proportional Representation (PR) system.
The Voting System
Nepal follows a parallel voting system for the general elections. As the name suggests, a parallel voting system is a mixed electoral system which consists of First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) and Party-List Proportional Representation (PR) electoral system.
FPTP — one of the oldest voting systems prevailing all around the world — means each constituency elects one member through direct voting, and the candidate with the most votes in the single round election wins the seat. This means there are 165 constituencies across Nepal which were delineated on the basis of population (1st priority) and geography (2nd priority).
The 165 constituencies were demarcated by the 2017 government based on the report submitted in the same year by the Constituency Delimitation Commission (CDC). Kathmandu has the highest number of constituencies (10), followed by Morang (6), and Jhapa, Rupandehi and Kailali (5 each). Constitutional provision guarantees that the constituencies are non-alterable for the next 20 years (until 2037) or contested in any court of law.
PR is based on party list votes where political parties submit a closed (non-changeable) list of candidates to the Election Commission. Voters will vote for political parties and seats are then distributed by the election authority to each party proportionate to the number of votes the party wins nationwide. This means the entire country is considered a single constituency. Candidates take seats in the order as they appear in the PR list forwarded by their parties.
However, parties must obtain a certain threshold — 3% of the total valid vote casted under the PR category and at least one seat under the FPTP category — to qualify representation in the parliament as ‘national parties’. In case the parties fail to secure the 3% threshold but its candidate wins a seat in the FPTP category, they can represent in the parliament as an non-party individual.
When the combination of FPTP and PR is used, voters cast votes at the same time as each voter has two votes, one for a constituency candidate and one for the PR list. Each voter is provided with two ballots papers for the two methods and the votes are casted.
National Assembly (Rastriya Sabha)
The National Assembly consists of 59 members in total.
These members are the representatives from the seven provinces of Nepal, each of which elect eight members through an electoral college and three are nominated by the President on the recommendation of the government.
The electoral college comprises members of the provincial assembly and chairperson/mayor and vice-chairperson/deputy mayor of provincial local units but the weight of their votes differ.
The provincial assembly member's vote has a weight of 48 whereas each chairperson/mayor/vice-chairperson/deputy mayor's vote carries a weight of 18.
Although the Nov 20 election is not about the National Assembly, the election outcomes of the provincial parliament and the local governments will have bearing on the composition of the assembly later.
As a permanent body that cannot be dissolved, the term of an assembly member can last for a maximum of six years with one-third members retiring every two years and elections happening every two years to appoint new assembly members. The election is a type of staggered election in which only some members are up for election at once.
The idea behind rotation of members is to have a permanent body, maintain the change of electoral influence and have a stable system.
Voters will also choose their provincial assembly representative this election. Each province parliament has a different number of seats totaling 550 from seven provinces.
The voting system exercised for the unicameral provincial parliament too is based on the mixed electoral voting — 60% of these seats (330) are elected through first-past-the-post (FPTP) and 40% (220) through proportional representation (PR).
Representation of women, marginalised and the underrepresented
House of Representative
The House of Representatives Election Act 2017 has reserved seats for seven groups — Women, Madhesi, Muslim, Dalit, Adibasi Janajati, Tharu and Khas Arya. The reserved seats are 29.7% for indigenous people, 15.3% for the Madhesi community, 13.8% for the Dalit community, 31.2% for the Khas-Arya 6.6% for the Tharus, 4.4% for the Muslims and 4.3% for the people from remote areas.
For women’s representation, at least one-third of the total members in all the assemblies have to be women. Same applies for the political party who have to ensure that at least one-third of their members shall be women.
The provision has achieved the mandated women representation across the parliaments, but this is mainly achieved by keeping women under the PR roster than fielding women candidates under the FPTP. This election 235 women have registered their candidacies (out of 2,526 candidates which is 10.25 percent) for the House of Representatives and 297 women are competing for provincial assemblies (out of 3,476 candidates, which is just 8.54 percent).
At executive bodies (for instance, council of ministers), the track record has been dismal. The councils have been dominated by men for most of the time. Women accounted for 26 percent in the federal council of ministers and around 20 percent across the provincial councils of ministers.
Within the eight members elected by each provinces for the National Assembly, at least three have to be women, one Dalit, and one member with a disability or from a minority group. Three persons including one woman are nominated by the President on the recommendation of the Government of Nepal.
Criticism and advantage of the parallel voting system
When a combination of FPTP and the PR system is used, the PR system negates the shortcomings of the FPTP.
In FPTP, a winner-takes-it-all method, candidates with the most votes win even if their share of votes is much lesser than the votes that have rejected them (for instance, even if the top candidate gets 34% in a voter base of 100 and among three popular candidates, the winning candidate will get to represent the rest of the 66% of the voters who have rejected the top candidate).
FPTP also favors larger parties who have a history of institutional outreach (like Nepali Congress and CPN (UML)) and regionally concentrated parties (Madhesh based parties like People’s Socialist Party and Loktantrik Samajbadi Party Nepal) barring smaller parties to penetrate with their ideology and agendas.
The parallel system of voting allows smaller parties to secure representation in the legislature. And the larger parties have to obtain support from the smaller parties to form the government ensuring that the larger parties don’t take over completely. This allows fresh ideologies and matters that are swept under the carpet (for instance, corruption scandals) to find their space.
Last election, Bibeksheeel Sajha garnered 2.22 percent PR votes but couldn't secure any PR seats for failing at reaching the threshold. The three percent threshold could secure at least three PR seats.
Based on the recent local election outcomes, chances are that new parties like media personality Rabi Lamichhane-led Rastriya Swatantra Party may score big, cutting down seats of the larger political parties.
Similarly, PR seats have also proved to be a useful medium for the political parties to ensure women representation as mandated by the laws.
But PR candidates from the big parties are usually compelled to toe along their party lines since they come through reserved seats unlike candidates under FPTP who win their seats.
The PR electoral system is also blatantly misused.
The essence of the system is to ensure the representation from the marginalised and underrepresented communities but people who have stayed in power for long and have little to show in their report cards, people who are close to power, people with deep pockets and people with vested interests in the parliament are found abusing the system to continue holding the influential lawmaking position.
Contrary to the spirit, politicians like Arzu Rana Deuba (former lawmaker and current first lady), NC leaders Bimalendra Nidhi and Gopal Man Shrestha (both held lawmaker positions several times), Nain Kala Thapa (wife of former minister and CPN (UML) Vice Chair Ram Bahadur Thapa), CPN (Maoist Centre) vice-chair Krishna Bahadur Mahara (former minister and spokesperson), and CPN (Unified Socialist) leader Ganga Lal Tuladhar (former lawmaker and minister) are all awarded seats in the PR list in the upcoming election.
On the other hand, the parallel system of voting might get a little complex for the voters to understand and comprehend as a system of electoral governance.
What is missing this election?
Although Nepal’s economy largely depends on remittance income sent by the foreign labor migrants, there are no provisions to ensure their voting rights. Estimates suggest that around 10-12% of the entire voting population (over 3.5 million Nepalis) is disenfranchised. With no laws to exercise their voting rights, politicians don’t feel the need to heed and address their concerns despite their mammoth contribution to the frail economy
This lack of provision has continued despite the Supreme Court’s directive in 2018 ordering the government to ensure voting rights for Nepalis living abroad for the future election.
A form of protest voting — the ‘none-of-the-above’ (right-to-reject) option in the ballot — allows voters to be expressive about their election candidates. Exercising the right can signify many things — that candidates are obsolete, incompetent, or they are fed up with the constant political bickering at the cost of taxpayers’ money, among others. For political parties, it should mean as a warning that voters can’t be taken for granted anymore.
In 2014, the Supreme Court had directed the government to implement the negative voting right but it is yet to come into force despite another Supreme Court ruling in 2019.
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