The year 2079 looks set to be the year of elections. The five-year term of the local governments, provincial assemblies and the federal House of Representatives is expiring next year and as is the beauty of democracy, people will go to the polls to elect new representatives with a new mandate. So, while we look forward to a series of fresh elections next year, it might also be appropriate to take a look back at how it all started.
The history of elections in Nepal starts with the local elections. The local bodies, called municipalities at the time, were some of the very first elected bodies set up in Nepal and the first elections, of any kind, were held 74 years ago in 1947.
Yes, as surprising as it sounds, it was the Rana government who introduced the concept of voting and representative institutions in the country.
The 1947 elections were held to elect representatives to the Kathmandu Municipality. Only male residents of the municipality, which included the area from Dhobi Khola to the east to Bishnumati in the west and Maharajgunj to the north to the Bagmati River in the south, aged 21 or above were allowed to vote. Males aged 25 or above who had cleared all their taxes and government dues were permitted to stand as candidates. The municipality had 21 wards with one ward getting one representative in the municipality.
Apparently, the authorities were not as concerned about voter fraud and election integrity because they used to distribute the ballot paper to the voters a day before elections to allow them to “ponder over the candidates” and vote for the person they and their families saw fit.
Five years after the country’s first local elections were held in Kathmandu, the Rana government transformed the municipalities of Lalitpur and Bhaktapur into elected bodies too and the residents of these cities cast their votes in 1952. This election too was a male-only one and women were prohibited from both voting and standing as candidates.
The first time women got to vote was in the Kathmandu Municipality elections of 1953. The government of the time under Matrika Prasad Koirala called it “unacceptable” and “primitive” to deny women, who still make up more than half the national population, the right to participate in democracy and extended the franchise to women more than 21 years of age. The government also encouraged women to stand as candidates. Sadhana Devi Pradhan was one of those who did and she became the first female elected representative of any kind in Nepal. She was elected to Kathmandu Municipality from ward No. 8, winning nearly 60 per cent of the total votes cast.
The year 1957 marked the first time elections were held for local bodies outside Kathmandu Valley. Elections were held for seats in the councils of Tansen Municipality, Biratnagar Municipality, Bhadrapur Municipality and Birgunj Municipality.
It must be noted that during the Rana and the early democratic period, local bodies were only seen as units necessary for urban areas. People of the rural areas had traditional governance mechanisms but they were not incorporated into the state system like urban municipalities were.
This changed in 1961 with the introduction of the Village Panchayat Act. This Act established legally mandated Village Panchayats and gave people of the rural areas a chance to choose their local representatives. The voting system though was open, that is to say, people gathered at the polling station, yelled or raised their hands to show their support for a candidate and whoever received the most support won. This, however, made people nervous as everyone would know who everyone else voted for and voter turnout was low. So, the Village Panchayat Act, 1963 reformed the electoral process and made the vote secret.
This is how the system of elections began in the country.