The local election code of conduct is strict, but it’s on paper only

File: Election Commission - Code of Conduct
File: Election Commission

On April 28, Home Minister Bal Krishna Khand and State Minister for Health and Population Umesh Shrestha arrived in Chitwan to persuade Nepali Congress leader Jagannath Paudel to withdraw his nomination from the mayor of Bharatpur. The home minister’s request to withdraw his candidacy was not a request; it was a warning.

To pressurise independent candidates to withdraw their nominations during the elections is against the code of conduct set by the Election Commission. But, the commission did not ask for any clarification. Why? Khand and Shrestha allegedly told the commission that they were going to Chitwan for personal reasons.

Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba was also in the act. Before leaving for Chitwan, Deuba, who is Nepali Congress’ president, had informed the commission about his visit. He had told the commission that it was a personal visit and he would not be wasting government resources. But, he did not fulfil his promise to the commission and attended a programme held by his coalition.

The examples above show how people in power are making a mockery out of the commission’s code of conduct. Despite the code clearly stating the prime minister, sitting ministers and state government officials cannot be involved in the election campaigns, they continue to disregard this and do as they feel, which has people questioning if the code of conduct is only limited to paper as all the commission does is ask people for clarification.

Clarification and it’s over

But, the commission says it is doing its best. On May 3, it sought clarification from nine people taking the total to 37. That is all that the commission is doing. At a time when it needed to take and stand and take action, it is allowing those in power to do as they please.

UML’s candidate for the post of Kathmandu’s mayor Keshav Sthapit made a controversial statement against a young woman who asked him a question about women accusing him of sexual harassment. The commission had asked for an explanation, but he held his ground as he repeatedly blamed others for trying to defame him.

Election Commissioner Ram Prasad Bhandari says the commission had predicted a few things that would happen. He says the commission is aware that political parties and candidates will do things that will violate its code of conduct.

But, what is happening is shocking the commission too.

Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba at the election meeting held in Bharatpur. - code of conduct election commission
Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba at the election meeting held in Bharatpur.

Amrit Khanal, ward 10 chair candidate of Melamchi municipality, was seen bowing down with a Rs 1,000 note. The photo went viral on social media. A source at the commission says it has received this complaint along with others where candidates and political parties are violating the commission’s code of conduct.

Deuba’s wife Arzu Rana Deuba in Dadeldura on May 5 warned the government would not release the budget if candidates from the Nepali Congress do not win. She urged people not to vote for other parties too.

Implementability in question

Even though this is publically happening, the commission’s spokesperson Saligram Sharma Paudyal says the commission is sensitive about its code of conduct.

“The commission is too small to monitor everything that is taking place in the country. We are taking action against people,” says Paudyal.

The commission has a provision in the code of conduct to allow the promotion of election campaigns only from the candidates of political parties and parties’ official social media accounts. But due to the massive use of social media like Facebook, TikTok and Twitter, it is impossible for the commission for examining every social media account, if the code of conduct has been followed or not.

Thus, the commission has now made arrangements where one can promote any party on social media but without any offence to the rival parties. These incidents and arrangements have shown the ineffectiveness of the provisions in the code of conduct.

Advocate Santosh Sigdel says the commission’s code of conduct is cannot be implemented. He says most of what is on it is impossible to follow, which gives candidates and others space to break them.

Chapter 3 of the code of conduct clearly states officials working in the central and provincial governments cannot promote candidates or parties. But, that has not been the case as Basudev Ghimire, the mayor of Tilotamma municipality, stated he was a political cadre and took part in the election campaign in his locality. He even said he was ready to face any questions by the Election Commission. The commission did ask for clarification. But, no action was taken against him.

Former chief election commissioner Nil Kantha Upreti says it was high time the commission made people like Ghimire take back their statements because it was wrong.

“Fifteen years ago, a candidate wasn’t allowed to fly to Andhra Pradesh. This is how strict we need to be,” says Upreti.

Breach from the biggies

But in Nepal, the commission itself gave permission to Deuba to take part in the event hosted by the coalition in Chitwan and asked people to vote for Renu Dahal.

“We can’t say anything because we gave him the permission. They’re misusing our provisions,” says an official from the commission.

Deuba, using state resources, is continuously going to similar events asking people to vote for Nepali Congress candidates. As this has happened, the commission has done nothing about it.

The commission has only taken action against people in public offices. People would have taken the officials seriously if they had taken strict action against key leaders, but they do nothing but warn.

The Election Commission Act has provisions of making the candidate pay a fine of up to Rs 100,000 and cancellation of candidacy. The commission’s Information Officer Guru Wagle says the decision to cancel the candidacy would be taken only if the commission is confident that the election would not be held in a free, fair and unbiased environment.

So far, the commission has decided to cancel the candidature in only two cases.

Former chief commissioner Upreti points out that the provisions in the code of conduct should be implemented. Without that, there is a risk of questioning the credibility of the election itself. “Once there is a provision in the code of conduct, it should be monitored and action should be taken in case of violation,” he says.

“There should not be a situation where strict provisions are made but are not implemented. On the contrary, it is better to have flexible provisions that can be implemented. If everyone violates the code of conduct by disobeying, the legitimacy and credibility of the election may be questioned. Such a situation should not be allowed to happen,” says Upreti.

This story was translated from the original Nepali version and edited for clarity and length.

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Gyawali is a senior journalist at Onlinekhabar.

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