Many senior party functionaries at the local level especially affiliated with the Nepali Congress (NC) and CPN-UML shared with this author recently about their willingness to contest the upcoming local polls. Given their commitment to the ideals and principles of the party and contribution they have offered to their respective organisations, they can stake claim for the party nomination for the post of mayors. However, they are not in a position to take up the challenge of contesting the elections. It is because a hefty sum of resources will have to be collected to pay for the election campaigning which is not possible to be mobilised from their part. According to the local party cadres, elections in Nepal have become so expensive and resource intensive not only at the provincial and federal level but at the local level as well.
Moreover, most of the women political leaders dare not contest the polls for reason of the excessive expenses and resources needed to mobilise and the finance the costs for the heavy campaigning juggernaut for around a month during the election. The escalation in electoral expenses had been starkly illustrated during the local polls held five years ago.
Even the candidates for local level Ward committee chairpersons and members reportedly coughed out at least Rs. 2-3 million to compete in the polls. The expenses incurred by the mayoral candidates had been staggeringly high and some of those who vied for the mayoral positions had been co-opted not due to their political history or affiliation but because of their clout to provide donation to the party or mobilise resources to pay for the ever escalating electoral expenses.
As the process for candidate selection and party nomination registration for the upcoming local polls is approaching nearer, several bona fide party leaders and aspirants may have to desist from contesting the elections as their parties are likely to dump them aside and co-opt those who can flex their financial muscles and monetary resources. Elections in Nepal have become too prohibitive and expensive for the less resourceful politicians to run the electioneering machinery in the competitive way. The unbridled competition among the parties to collect and mobilise contributions and donations for campaign financing is hardly regulated. The political contestants use every means – both legal and illegal -- to amass huge resources to fuel and propel their campaigning machine taking a resort to the breach of the code of ethics brazenly.
During the last elections, the Election Commission (EC) had fixed poll campaign spending limit in the electoral code of conduct for the elections of the House of the Representatives (HoR) at the federal and provincial level. The candidates vying for the federal and provincial parliament through first past the post (FPTP) were allowed to spend up to Rs. 2.5 million and Rs. 1.5 million, respectively. In case of the Proportional Representation (PR), the candidates contesting the elections at both levels - federal and provincial levels - had to limit themselves to Rs. 200,000 and Rs 150,000 cap, respectively.
But the poll watchers had reported that the expenses a candidate poured in for oiling his or her electoral campaign apparatus had even crossed Rs. 10 million mark at the minimum. Where does the money that funds the campaigning of the political parties and candidates in the election drawn from is a big question. However, one can say with certitude that it comes from the shady and corrupt deals and fraudulent transactions that are executed clandestinely by the politicians with hands in gloves with contractors, dealers and business agencies. They also raise contribution from big business houses and co-opt and offer exalted political position and role to business elites in exchange of the financial aid and support. However, this is seldom disclosed and properly accounted for in the elections.
The mounting electoral expense has thus assaulted on the values and principles of democracy as only those who possess monetary clout and illicit income can contest elections and secure their place in the democratic institutions of the state. State institutions and policies have the possibility of being subdued and captured by kleptocrats. This threatens the basics of democracy based on the fair consent of the people. The state can be reduced into a surrogate agency to further and protect the interests of election campaign financiers, not that of the ordinary voters.
It is noted here that the EC’s role is very crucial and important. It should step up its vigilance to sanction and check the electioneering actions that flout the code of conduct through breach of cap on campaign expenses. Here political stakeholders should also take cognizance of the fact that their role and orientation alone can support in maintaining electoral integrity and fairness. All the financial deals should be transacted transparently through disclosures of income and expenses. Moreover, all the financial deals should be executed in adherence to the financial accounting standards so that the credibility and veracity of their financial audited reports is ensured and maintained.
Civil society and media should also play an important role to make the political actors follow the electoral code of ethics. Media can investigate and disclose the untoward activities while civil society can take up and engage with the parties to refrain from indulging into actions that flout the code of ethics. Civil society and media should work together to check the malaise of the rising campaign costs. As the country is bracing for the polls at the local, provincial and federal levels this year in a row, stakeholders and actors should work in concert to protect the integrity and sanctity of the polls for democratic consolidation in the country.
(The author is presently associated with Policy Research Institute (PRI) as a senior research fellow. firstname.lastname@example.org)