Sunday, 4 June, 2023

Tackling Electoral Offences

Tackling Electoral Offences

Mukti Rijal

The upcoming local elections, it seems, is going to be the mother of all electoral battles for the political parties in Nepal. For some political parties, its outcome will decide not only their political currency and destiny but also offer enough indications whether they could weather existential challenges of the days to come in order to exist, sustain and last as a viable political organisation.
The communist parties like the CPN- Maoist Centre and NCP-Unified Socialist are all under heavy political stress. They have been struggling and have seemingly girded their loins to expand their organisational networks to survive as a political entity though their respective problems and issues do not look identical. The Unified Socialist is particularly faced with a big test as it has to prove that it is there to stay as the major institutional political actor in the country.

Likewise, the Maoist Centre is hard pressed to demonstrate its resilience to prove that it is a party that has capacity to compete with the CPN-UML while the Nepali Congress is a contender for the mandate to govern the country. Likewise, UML leader KP Sharma Oli has claimed that his party is all set to beat and smash other competing parties in the polls while NC looks firm and confident to win the local elections easily since the rival communists are in the state of flux, fragmented and disunited. The electoral battle lines are drawn at the local level and political leaders have started looking downward and canvassing to rally support of the rural masses in favour of their respective party organisation.

Existential battle
However, the highly competitive and do or die existential electoral battle often times appears tough and therefore not free from security risks and challenges. Political parties in their bid to outbid rivals and capture power by hook or by crook can use and misuse every means at their disposal particularly money, muscles and all kinds of unfair and unscrupulous means and practices. As a consequence, they commit electoral offences and undue practices. Such unfair practices are likely to challenge the integrity and sanctity of the elections and electoral process. In fact, a law relating to electoral offences is in place and it covers a wider spectrum of unfair practices that fall under the category of electoral crimes and offences. The above mentioned law prohibits voting by impersonation stating no person shall, by impersonation, obtain a ballot paper for polling or cast vote, or cause to be caste vote.

Similarly, the law also prohibits the exercise and use of undue influence in the polls. It states that no person acting on behalf of any political party or candidate or his or her agent or other person shall, in the course of election, use intimidation and exercise undue influence for the purpose of winning favour in the electoral competition.

A resort of undue influence is defined as making obstruction, obstacle or intimidation, or causing such act to be made, with intent to prevent any person from making candidacy in an election or canvassing election or exercising the right to vote. The undue influence also covers the acts of demonstrating or using weapons or explosive substances of any kind, causing any kind of damage; showing any kind of fear, threat, terror or menace; showing gratification or greed or economic benefit in any manner for the purpose of collecting votes in one's own favour.

Besides, the law prohibits using derogatory or demeaning language, with intent to prejudice the results of election, damage, in any manner, the character of any candidate or his or her family member. It also forbids making false accusation of any matter which relates to the character or conduct of the candidate or his or her family member. The laws bars the propagation or dissemination of messages and communications that undermine the independence, sovereignty, territorial or national integrity of the country and prejudices the state authority vested in the people or competitive multi-party democracy. The law stops jeopardising the harmonious relations subsisting among various religions, castes, tribes or communities or inciting to commit any violent act or creating hatred or enmity on the basis of any language, religion, community or region; inciting others to commit any act that is considered to be an offence pursuant to the prevailing laws.

Similarly, the law forbids an exchange of gifts, give or agree to give any voter cash or kind as a present, reward, gratification, donation or gift to exercise or refrain from exercising his or her right to vote. Moreover, even the voters shall not receive or agree to receive such cash or kind for himself or herself or any other person. No political party or candidate or his or her agent or any other person shall, in the course of election canvassing, use, or cause to be used, vehicles exceeding the number as permitted by the Election Commission.

In addition, no political party or candidate or his or her agent or any other person shall, in the course of election canvassing, use or cause to be used any vehicles belonging to the government or organisations owned by the government or the local governments. Returning Officer or polling officer or monitoring team mandated to help manage the polls is authorised to order any person whoever causes obstruction or attempts to or aids or abets to cause obstruction to the polling or counting of votes or any other act of election to refrain from doing such act.

The persons found guilty of such electoral offences can be booked for justice. The unscrupulous and unfair acts mentioned above are responsible to challenge and vitiate the sanctity and integrity of elections in the country. These electoral malpractices and offences had been pervasive during the previous polls, especially held to the Constituent Assembly. But the cases of impersonation, using posters and graffiti have been regulated these days to some extend following the introduction of voter identity card in particular.

However, lavish expenditures in mobilising party functionaries, holding rallies and processions has made the elections campaigning so expensive that they are beyond reach of the ordinary candidates. The Election Commission, political parties, law enforcement agencies and civil society should work together to rein in the rising costs of the elections and ensure that the integrity of elections is fully maintained and upheld.

(The author is presently associated with Policy Research Institute (PRI) as a senior research fellow.