If Political Parties Lack Effective Governance and Internal Democracy, Voter Turnout Decreases.

Dinesh Thapaliya

Chief Election Commissioner

Dinesh Thapaliya is the Chief Election Commissioner. Under Thapaliya’s leadership, local elections were conducted in April 2022, and parliamentary and provincial elections in November 2022. Subsequent by-elections held in April 2023 and April 2024 were also under his leadership. In the interview conducted by Ramesh Prasad Timalsina, former editor of INSEC online, Thapaliya shares his insights on election management, the government’s role in elections, and electoral code of conduct.

How challenging is it for the Election Commission to successfully conduct elections?

Elections are the cornerstone of democracy. The initiation of development, good governance, and prosperity often begins with successful elections. Just as a farmer can reap good harvests from a well-prepared field, the same applies to elections. I see elections as akin to the farmer preparing the field and planting the seeds. It’s crucial to be clear on who conducts elections before anything else. After elections, we listen to the government’s policies and programs, including speeches from leaders such as the Prime Minister. It is recorded that the government successfully completes the elections and is celebrated as an accomplishment. However, it is stated in the constitution that the Election Commission is responsible for conducting elections. Therefore, it should have been, “The Election Commission successfully completed the elections, and we are pleased to have played a significant role in its execution”? Isn’t it true?

The perspective that the government conducts elections is strongly entrenched. This is a misconception. Elections are not conducted by the government but by the Election Commission. This is explicitly stated in the constitution. It’s an established fact worldwide that elections are conducted by election commissions. Here too, the same viewpoint needs to be adopted. Setting the date for elections, making preparations, these are our responsibilities. Organizations and journalists, like you, monitor us, just as human rights organizations do. Criticisms are welcomed. Assistance in improvement is sought. We accept that. However, the foremost requirement for elections is the budget. Second is the management of resources. Third is human resource, which we lack. We need to request this from the government. Fourth is ensuring security arrangements. Every voter should feel, ‘I am voting safely.’ Managing security is crucial. Therefore, by addressing all these issues and aligning them with the integrity, independence, impartiality, and credibility of elections, it becomes imperative to assign equal responsibility to a dedicated police. When other stakeholders are also entrusted with equal responsibilities, this becomes a highly complex managerial task.

Monitoring organizations desire that elections be impartial and independent. They want voters to have confidence in the impartiality of the elections. Civil society and mainstream media play a crucial role in ensuring the transparency and impartiality of elections. This is precisely the objective of the Election Commission. The main stakeholders of elections are the political parties and candidates. However, political parties and candidates often forget this aspect. They overlook phrases like “elections must be transparent, independent, impartial, free from fear, and credible.” Instead, they adopt a mentality like “I must win.” Yes, amidst this, achieving unity and completing the election is like chewing a steel bitten rice.

From time to time, it has been necessary to make candidates and political parties understand, hasn’t it?

We help people who are unaware. We make efforts. We urge the public to participate in elections. But do people violate the code of conduct leads because they don’t know about it? Don’t they understand one should win with integrity and honesty, and not by using force and making it expensive? Don’t candidates have the necessary information? Maintaining peace and security, implementing the code of conduct effectively, and promptly resolving any election-related issues are essential. However, political parties and candidates do not always cooperate as desired by the Election Commission in such matters.

We are happy the election was successful. We committed to conducting elections nationwide simultaneously. The government supported this initiative, and we received your support as well. When elections are conducted successfully in parts, there are always questions raised about the process. Therefore, I understand the importance of reiterating the need to conduct elections simultaneously nationwide. In this endeavor, we achieved success. We received immense support from the general public, media, and monitoring organizations. I feel that the Election Commission has never received such extensive support in history. We obtained information and cooperation from every corner. We created an environment for action in every locality. We proved that elections can be conducted cost-effectively. We made elections more accessible. This has become a lifestyle. Elections are a continuous process. There is no alternative to affirming self-commitment as a form of continuous effort for democracy. From this perspective, the Election Commission is pleased. However, establishing a culture of elections within political parties has proven to be somewhat challenging.

Do political parties compete or individuals in a multi-party competitive system?

This question has brought great complexity to our forefront. It is crucial to analyze this question. Our constitution states that political parties are formed based on policies, principles, ideologies, and programs. When asking for votes, political parties present their commitment, policies, principles, and ideologies. Voters decide their vote based on the policies, principles, ideologies, programs, and commitments of political parties. Based on these factors, they either vote or abstain from voting. Voters are independent. They are sovereign. We have been experiencing efforts to undermine this eternal truth after the election of 2017.

Do you mean in the name of alliances?

Parties didn’t participate in the election. Individuals did. Now, the commission fears that the belief that the current individual-candidate is primary has somewhere sidelined the party-based competitive system. Our belief is that trust, ideology, policies, principles, and programs win in elections. However, there seems to be an attempt to establish the wrong standard that money, influence, power, and other manipulative capabilities can win. I say this with great sorrow – if established mainstream media outlets are printing news about the elections, saying “there was a floor cross in the National Assembly election” or “someone was widely popular in a certain constituency in the parliamentary election, but someone else won,”

Voters are independent. This is not a standard I’ve created but is universally accepted. Whether it’s the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or international conventions related to civil and political rights, in those documents, the voter’s independence is mentioned. Elections are confidential. It’s stated in every document that voters can freely cast their votes for the candidate or party of their choice in anonymity. Political parties are supposed to be our representatives as voters. Some examples, such as the mainstream media publishing content opposing confidential voting principles, pose challenges to conducting elections independently.

The mentality of a monarch and subjects still persists in democracy?

Yes, this mentality still persists. If such incorrect ideologies and standards are established, it raises questions about the integrity of the election process itself, which concerns the Election Commission. Therefore, it’s essential for all stakeholders to take this matter seriously. I have also raised this issue with the parties. This matter has also been mentioned in our annual report. Commission is actively working towards condemning such wrongful practices.

The Election Commission also monitored the code of conduct through social media. How effective was it?

Based on our analysis of election reports from different countries since 2016 and conducted studies from experts, social media will play a big role in future elections. The walls of Facebook instead of walls in cities will be filled with the colors of election. We prohibit campaigning in the pre-election period as election silence. However, the mobile phone of the voters standing in line rings with a message requesting them to cast their votes in a certain symbol.

We used to call marches, meetings, etc. as election propaganda in the post. But we discourage it in the current days. In the next election, artificial intelligence can influence even more. The issue of artificial intelligence should also be addressed in the future. We made an agreement with Meta in the 2022 election. Additionally, we prepared a list of how much our political parties and candidates have spent campaigning through Facebook. Huge amounts of money are being released through Facebook during the election and we have started the process of including it in the election expenses. Misinformation, disinformation and hate speech are three things we should not forget when we use social media. These three things affect the voting. Such matters should be looked at with equal importance not only during elections but also at other times. In the upcoming elections, we should work against the misinformation from social media in a more effective manner with appropriate strategies.

A code of conduct is issued after emphasizing the issues regarding various laws during election. Why did a non-applicable code of conduct had to be issued?

There are three main concerns in the code of conduct to be issued regarding the election. One is further explaining and confirming what is in the election law. It can be reduced, however, the law itself states that a code of conduct should be issued. Secondly, there are matters stated in the Election Offenses and Punishment Act that must be explained. The law shows the right path and is described by the code of conduct. Thirdly, there are issues that need to be addressed by looking at the current situations that are not covered by the laws and regulations.

Three things were observed during application of the code of conduct. One, the commission could not regulate and take action in an effective manner even when it was violated. Second, there is a tendency to complain about the violation of the code of conduct and the actions of others. Thirdly, violating the code of conduct affects individuals, family, and even communities. The wrong tendency of considering the violation of the code of conduct as bravery has backfired. As reports covering such topics have been reported. We have also pondered about it.

A code of conduct serves as a moral guideline, dictating how individuals should present themselves and guiding their actions. It influences how one perceives and participates in the election process. Adhering to the code of conduct is closely tied to the context and demands professionalism.

Taking action against those who violate the code of conduct, including imposing fines, is a new step for us. Some individuals have filed cases claiming innocence and challenging the fines.  However, our initiative and efforts are positive and will remain positive.

The commission stays inactive for four and a half years and active for six months. That is why the commission is weak in electoral education. How long should we consider the issue of how to vote as election education?

This is an important issue raised by INSEC in its election supervision and supervision report since 1991. While in various ministries, I also got the opportunity to work in collaboration with INSEC.

From the experience of cooperation, I can say that the suggestions given by INSEC are practical. I have taken a phrase from looking at the reports here. The Election Commission could not be freed from the disease of being restless during elections and being too quiet at other times. I myself agree with this. The reason for this is basically the government point of view regarding the election. The day of voting is one day. However, it takes five years to prepare for the elections. Five years of preparation will be expressed in one day. Those studying in class one will also take the exam once a year. Those studying in class 10 will also take the exam after preparing for one year. Similarly, after five years of preparation, they will vote on one day. While initially prioritizing election day, resource constraints and the absence of a comprehensive strategy have led to confusion within our operations. To address this, the commission has recently developed policies and procedures pertaining to election education. Our renewed focus is directed towards consistent election education initiatives throughout the year, reflecting our commitment to fostering informed participation and strengthening the integrity of the electoral process. And, it will run through the local level. We conduct election education through partnership, coordination and cooperation at the local level. Election education is also the responsibility of the local level. The subject of the election is not only how to vote. But the issue of voters being decreased is also a matter to be addressed. Only 61% voted in the 2022 election. It is not possible to solve this by the efforts of the Commission alone but also with the coordination between stakeholders and the citizens.

It is said that only 61% have voted. Those who have gone abroad do not have the right to vote. 30-35 % of the total voters are abroad. Shouldn’t this matter be looked over?

In my personal interpretation and analysis, I have been concerned about the same. This time overall 92-95% of votes have fallen.

However, speaking as the Chief Election Commissioner, rather than focusing on who is where, we have to focus on the number of people in the voters list. It is important to be serious about how to get Nepali voters living abroad to participate in voting. And the commission is still working on it. Another important issue is that, how to make voters who are within the country for work, but not in the place where their voter list is, participate in voting. Addressing these two issues holds the potential to increase voter turnout significantly. To this end, the Commission has taken proactive measures, including the placement of ballot boxes at District Election Offices a week before the elections, along with provisions for early voting. This is our proposal and we have also started the preparations. The most important party in the election is the political parties. If the good governance and the internal democracy of the parties are not strong, the voting will not increase.