Interview | Election Commission should immediately declare the date for the election of president: Ila Sharma, former Election Commissioner

‘It is beyond my imagination that the Commission will not declare the dates on time and fulfill its constitutional responsibility as there is absolutely no hindrance to do so.’

NL Today

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The Election Commission of Nepal has not announced the date of election of the president even as the tenure of the incumbent president Bidya Devi Bhandari is coming to an end in a month’s time.  Meanwhile, the parties in the ruling coalition  are also blamed for not being proactive enough to hold the president’s election.   Nepal Live Today caught up with Ila Sharma, former Commissioner at Election Commission Nepal, to discuss  issues related to the delayed president’s election.  

Recently, the rumors regarding deliberate delay in the elections of the president and vice president are making rounds on social media and the political sphere. What’s your take on this?

The Election Commission of Nepal has earned an excellent reputation worldwide due to its stellar performance in a very short time through these tumultuous years. This achievement is an aggregate of team-work. Many of the commissioners have invested a considerable time of their lives in earning this credibility with a constant eye on reforms. The Election Commission of Nepal has never ever failed to deliver.

That said, the Election Commission is not swayed by social media or any other opinion. The Election Commission is there to fulfill its constitutional mandate and will not let down the nation.  

You have been consistently saying that the Election Commision follows the letter and spirit of the Constitution and the law. Can you briefly tell us the letter and spirit with regard to the presidential election?

The Constitutional provision is clear which says we need to elect the new president well before the tenure of the incumbent expires. The law tells us how to do it. It is as simple as that.

The Commission does not go beyond what is written in the Constitution or the laws. It has never done so. Its decision may have been a bit on the conservative side occasionally, but that’s different.

We have good practice in Nepal, as the Draft Bills to be produced in the State Affairs Committee of the Parliament are prepared in the Commission itself by a high-level drafting committee that has a law secretary, chairman of the law commission as permanent members and other secretaries are invited as required. In this way, the Commission has an ownership of the laws that are finally passed by the Parliament. This is a great practice as no other than the Election Commission can know about what is needed for reforms, what is lacking from the extensive reviews that it conducts after each election as well as the regular annual M&E (monitoring and evaluation) reviews as it has a five-year strategic plan. Few people know about this practice though. 

Main opposition party Nepali Congress seems cautious about the possible ‘constitutional void’ given the delay to declare the presidential elections date by the commission. What is your response? 

I am surprised by this question as there is absolutely no possibility of a constitutional void. The Constitution is very clear, and so is the relevant law – there is no confusion. It may be because some people do not read the constitutional provisions and the legal provisions carefully. Now the next step for the Commission is to declare a date and make the necessary preparations. The Commission does not make noise, it just does its job. 

Opposition party leaders have also expressed their worry about the proposed change to some of the clauses of the existing regulation, particularly conducting the elections a few days in advance instead of the existing provision of exactly one month in advance. Is this a serious issue? 

Why should the legal provisions be amended? Where is the need? I am not aware of the opposition party being worried, but what I know is that there is no problem in the Constitution or in the Election law relating to the election of President and vice president. There is absolutely no need for any amendment whatsoever.

See the time gap will always be there. The common practice is that the newly elected president remains as the President Elect until the incumbent’s tenure is over. That’s what is practiced in our neighboring country India and it has worked for the largest democracy of the world. Where is the problem?

What if the commission delays to announce the date of new elections? What type of complications will the situation bring forth in Nepal’s politics? 

The Commission simply cannot do that and I believe it will not. I cannot imagine the Commission falling short of its Constitutional mandate.

The reason President and vice president election law provides for the Election Commission to declare the dates has a background to it. The Commission used to declare the election dates for the House of representative election back in 1991 as per the House of Representatives Election Act of 2047 BS. Since then, due to political turmoil, this practice was discontinued. This responsibility of declaring the dates for the presidential election has been achieved with great difficulty. Now it is for the Commission to prove that it can handle the autonomy as per the Constitutional responsibility to “conduct, supervise, direct and control the election of President, Vice president….” Or else it will be reduced to the capacity of a department of the government.  

I chaired the high-level legal drafting committee for almost five years at the Commission and almost all of the electoral Acts, Regulations, Directives were drafted during that period. In each Draft Bill, the Election Commission proposed that the responsibility of declaring the date of all elections be given to the Commission as is the practice in other South Asian countries. It is vital for this constitutional body’s autonomy in the South Asian political milieu. The Commission has consistently pursued two main reforms agenda–one is this and another is political funding and election expenditure reforms.

It is beyond my imagination that the Commission will not declare the dates on time and fulfill its constitutional responsibility as there is absolutely no hindrance to do so. How can the Commission let itself down by not declaring the dates as this one provision, the responsibility to declare dates for presidential election, is so hard earned? Since there is no conflict between the Constitution and the Act, there is no confusion in any of them, nor is there any incompatibility, ECN should clear the air by declaring a date asap and put the unnecessary rumors to rest.

Some politicians have come forward with the idea of electing the president based on national consensus. What’s your take?

Changing the electoral system involves a constitutional amendment. It is believed that one kind of electoral system must be practiced for a few electoral cycles patiently and evaluated before an attempt to change is made. Besides, no system is good or bad in itself, as it depends on those who implement it. A system is as good as the person involved and the leadership decides the fate of a system.

I think this system is not a bad system while a directly elected president may also work. We need to give it some time.