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Which way to elections?
A change in the political climate has highlighted the need for a major overhaul of the election system in Nepal. Professor Joergen Elklit, an expert on election systems shares his thoughts on the challenges facing NepalBy Line Wolf Nielsen
25. July 2006
Ever since the People’s Movement in April 2006 the country has been rife with buzz words like constitutional assembly, women’s participation and interim government. Talks on road maps and voter systems shape the agendas of many a donor meeting, press conferences and talk programmes. It is also the reason for Professor Joergen Elklit recently visited Nepal. Joergen Elklit knows how to explain the vocabulary of election – not just to his students back home at the University of Aarhus in Denmark, but also to the benefit of various countries around the world, where he has been lending his expertise in times of political change.
Assigned by the international ngo IFES, he came to Nepal in July 2006 and gave trainings on the more technical aspects of election systems, trying to explain the differences between Nepal’s existing electoral system of “first past the post” and that of “proportional representation”.
Photo: Line Wolf Nielsen
Joergen Elklit is no stranger to Nepal. As the first democratic government was formed in 1990, Joergen Elklit was assigned by DANIDA to advice on the drafting of the constitution and worked with the Electoral Comission. A year later he took part in the monitoring of parliamentary elections.
Back in 1990 the political leaders of the time returned from exile in India. There they had gotten familiar with the electoral system known as “first past the post” – a system widely popular amongst former British colonies and in the UK. (See box below)
This system, which tends to create an over representation of larger parties, was chosen to be implemented in Nepal.
“I do wonder what the nation could have looked like, had the “proportional representation” system been installed instead. This system will normally allow many more voices and viewpoints into parliament, thus enhancing dialogue and the need for compromising and creating coalitions. With the various structural problems in the Nepalese society it might have been a step forward towards greater inclusiveness,“ Joergen Elklit reflects.
Ensuring women’s participation – how?
In Nepal, the whole idea of creating a new electoral system for an upcoming election for a constituent assembly is to create a mechanism for representation which reflects the voting pattern and set various criteria of the way society want different groups to be represented. Say one criterion is to ensure and enhance women’s participation in politics then what do you do to fulfill it?
According to Professor Joergen Elklit you could choose to do nothing within the electoral system rules because you trust the parties to ensure women’s participation. On the other hand you could chose to have quotas or you could try reserving say, every third name on the ballot for female candidates.
Currently, political parties in Nepal need to have at least five percent female candidates in order to be eligible. As it is there has been a practice where parties chooses to put female candidates in districts where they are sure to loose out. They fulfill the quotas but it’s ridiculing the system and underlines the need for new rules.”
In South Africa such a rule does not exist but interestingly, the governing ANC party has managed – through the use of internal member’s ballot on the composition of the list – to ensure participation of women and people with disabilities.
“Reserving every third position for women will work, but of course it would be even better if you did not need the rule and if parties voluntarily would ensure and nurture female participation,” the Professor reflects.
Many new and emerging democracies have a much higher representation of women in parliament compared to older Western democracies, because of this principle being enshrined in the electoral system.
Trusting a Brahmin?
Women’s representation aside, Joergen Elklit has been wondering if Nepal is ready to take the idea of representation to its fullest.
“Can a Brahmin trust a politician who is not Brahmin and can a Dalit imagine a non-Dalit fighting for Dalit rights,” the professor rhetorically asks.
“Despite the fact that I am a man of more than 60 years old it might be a politically active single mom in her 30ies who will represent my views the best – so why would I vote for someone else, just because he resembles me better? My point is that it might not be sufficient to get people elected which look just like your self. This precise social representation need not be so important, if you trust your politicians. However, in Nepal, social representation is what people feel there is a need for, because it has not been like that previously when it was all Bramins,” he says.
Scrapping a constitution
As many as 50 points have been scrapped from the current constitution and the Professor can’t help but wonder if all the constitution scrapping – done in the name of constitutional development – creates an understanding of a constitution being a piece of ordinary legislation you can change if so desired. Another issue is the expectations to the necessary time needed for the tasks ahead.
“It is very difficult to handle an interim constitution – and it is ludicrous to hope for anything more than a very thin paper when you only allow the drafting to go on for a mere two weeks. When you have asked the Parliament to go home the question of who should keep an eye on the interim government - and which body holds the legislative power also arises.”
“If you want to have a reasonable quality election you need a year from the decision until the actual election date. Then you have time for voter education, voter registration and to look into the issue of citizenships. Only after the election to the constitutional assembly can the actual work on Nepal’s new constitution begin. Realistically this work will not be finished at least another two years from now. Spring elections seem unrealistic to me – unless you want to compromise on the quality and the legitimizing foundation of the constitutional assembly.”
Nepal not unique
The professor recognizes that the whole situation is rather difficult to grasp, as it isn’t just a question about preparing for elections to a constitutional assembly and drafting a new interim constitution. There is also the big issue of disarmament and the integration of the Maoists into the national army. If you ask the well-traveled Joergen Elklit, Nepal is however either more or less complicated than other places preparing for elections and democracy.
“They also have various ethnic groups in Iraq and Afghanistan. Social problems are prevalent in most third world countries and armed insurgencies have been notorious in most of South and Central America and also in Afghanistan and Iraq – and all have had inexpedient constitutions. If you have the right attitude and trust your opponents you can get a good development process going and this will eventually lead to results,” he says.
Learn from South Africa
According to Joergen Elklit, Nepal ought to take a closer look at South Africa for inspiration. Like in Nepal, South Africa also had two warring parties – the white government and the anti-apartheid movement lead by the ANC party. The country had a very long history of mistrust, following more than 30 years of inhumane and often violent suppression of the majority og the country’s citizens, but in the end most people realized the need for reconciliation. Joergen Elklit took part in the democractization process in South Africa as an advisor - an experience he treasures immensely.
“The process was a very inclusive and tolerant one, with lots of sub committees looking into various issues. It took a lot of time – a good two years before you had an interim constitution on the table – but the inclusive process created an understanding which eventually brought about an interim constitution and a new electoral law - including an Election Commission in charge of holding election.
There where many fall outs during negotiations and parties walked out several times, but after some time they came back again simply because everyone acknowledged the need for a solution. It was a national process which everyone felt responsible for. The negations situation helped to build trust and a reasonable amount of respect for the opponent. ”
Another key element to the successful process in South Africa was the strong and independent election commission. It is evident, says Joergen Elklit, who was one of five international members of the South African Independent Electoral Commission, that you need a very strong, firm, competent election commission with a solid economic foundation in order to conduct trustworthy elections. Here, Nepal need not look as far as to South Africa. In India, the world’s largest democracy, the election commission is very independent and strong,” says the professor.
Joergen Elklit has no shortage of examples on how to handle situations like the one Nepal is facing, including negotiations amongst armed parties, but if there is one thing he feels the need for underlining it is the question of time;
“If you think it can happen overnight, then you will do well to wise up fast.”
The buzz words are likely to be buzzing for still some time to come.
First past the post
The term first past the post was coined as an analogy to horse racing, where the winner of the race is the first to pass a particular point on the track (in this case a plurality of votes), after which all other runners automatically and completely lose. There is, however, no "post" that the winning candidate must pass in order to win, as they are only required to receive the largest number of votes in their favor.
Plurality voting is used in 43 of the 191 countries in the United Nations for either local or national elections. In particular, plurality voting is particularly prevalent in the United Kingdom and former British colonies, including the United States and Canada.
Proportional representation is an electoral system delivering a close match between the percentage of votes that the political parties obtain in elections and the percentage of seats they receive in legislative assemblies. It is often contrasted to plurality voting systems, where disproportional seat distribution results from the division of voters into multiple electoral districts, especially "winner takes all" plurality districts.
Various forms of proportional representation exist, such as party-list proportional representation, in which voters can only vote for a party and their predefined (closed) list of candidates, compared to open list systems, where the position of the candidate on the list depends on the actual votes the candidate has received in the election.
Proportional representation is a much more common system of voting than the plurality voting system. All of the members of the European Parliament, including those elected from constituencies in Britain, are elected by proportional representation. Proportional representation is also used in many European countries.