Almost four years back, the Supreme Court of Nepal ordered the government to provide Nepalis living abroad with voting right in future elections. However, the provision of absentee voting has not been implemented yet nor is there any sign that it will come into effect anytime soon.
If the Supreme Court precedent is considered a part of the country’s law, over two million Nepalis were denied the opportunity to exercise their basic political right in the local elections held in May. And, this is not going to change in the upcoming federal and provincial parliamentary elections, thanks to a lack of action from the authorities.
Stakeholders say it is imperative to give migrant workers their enfranchisement given their contribution to the national economy with the remittances they send. However, the responsible authorities look confused, if not uninterested, about how Nepal can exercise absentee voting.
According to a report from the Central Bureau of Statics published in July this year, 21,69,478 Nepali are living outside Nepal. All these people are potential voters as they have already reached the age of majority.
Article 21 (3) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights reads, “The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.”
It means if Nepal continues to count its migrant workers as its own citizens, the authorities need to make immediate efforts to introduce absentee voting, says labour rights activist Aashish Rai.
Rai and his team have been frequently holding meetings with the Election Commission for the past seven years to put pressure on the authorities to introduce the system. “But, no progress has been made so far.”
“They (the commission) say the interference of top political parties is the main reason behind the inability to introduce the external voting system,” says Rai.
Rai and his team have also collected the signatures of Nepali migrants from 17 different countries, demanding absentee voting rights and have submitted it to the commission, but in vain.
But, the commission’s assistant spokesperson Surya Prasad Aryal says there are no legal grounds to allow absentee voters to cast their ballots now.
“We have even conducted various studies for external voting and submitted the reports to the government,” says Aryal. “But, there has not been any progress since then.”
The blame game
Neil Kantha Uprety, a former chief election commissioner, says unless the government builds a mechanism to register absentee voters in their host countries, it is impossible to let them vote now.
But, he believes that building such a mechanism has never been the priority of the government.
The government does not have a policy because political parties are not prepared for this. CPN-UML leader Binda Pandey, also an outspoken labour rights activist, blames the political leadership for the failure.
“Depriving migrants of their voting rights is against the spirit of democracy,” she says, “But, the political leaders that are in power today are old-fashioned. They do not accept and believe in the absentee voting system that comprises the use of technology.”
They feel insecure with technology and unless they get rid of such a mentality, it is hard to provide voting rights to the Nepalis living abroad, she adds.
Meanwhile, Dila Sangraula, a leader of the ruling Nepali Congress, says disagreements among political parties hindered the voting rights of Nepali people living abroad.
“Our party is very positive to introduce the absentee voting system. Time and again, we have raised our voice for it as well,” says Sangraula. “The reluctance of other parties is the main obstruction for an external voting system.”
But, a lack of willingness is not the only problem. Technically, this is a difficult process.
Migrant Nepalis can be able to vote only if voting booths are installed at the embassies. But, that can be not a complete solution yet. Pandey doubts the number of migrant workers going to the embassies might not be great all the time.
Of course, online voting might solve this issue, but Nepali authorities do not believe in technology. The most apparent example is their reluctance to introduce the electronic voting system in Nepal.
Globally, absentee voting is not a new concept now. Both developed and developing nations have already exercised it. Not only Sweden, Canada, the Philippines, Spain and Italy, but developing countries such as Senegal, Brazil, Mexico, and Honduras have also been exercising external voting.
Pakistan remains the only country in South Asia that allows absentee voting, in which the voters can log into the National Overseas Voting System and cast their votes.