Carter Center’s international election observation mission in Nepal released its 5-point observations and recommendations yesterday
“Now is the time for the government of Nepal to demonstrate its genuine intention to hold a credible constituent assembly election on November 22, 2007. The parties must come together to convince the people of their dedication to this goal, take immediate steps to gain the confidence of marginalized groups, and address the poor security environment so that the peace process continues to progress.” –former U.S. President Jimmy Carter
This statement presents the observations and continued findings of the Carter Center’s international election observation mission in Nepal. In March 2007, the mission deployed 13 long-term observers (LTOs) representing nine different nationalities throughout Nepal to assess the political and electoral environment in the period leading up to the constituent assembly election. The Center’s observers have visited all of Nepal’s 75 districts, in many cases multiple times, reaching not only to district headquarters but also to the village level.
The observations and recommendations below build upon the Carter Center’s previous pre-election statement and are based on information gathered by the Center’s headquarters staff and long-term observers in meetings with electoral authorities, government officials, political party and civil society leaders, security officials, Nepali citizens, and representatives of the international community.
The Carter Center conducts election observation activities in a nonpartisan, professional manner in accordance with applicable Nepali law and international standards for election observation as set forth in the Declaration of Principles for International Election Observation. The Center coordinates closely with other international and domestic observer delegations and publishes statements of its findings and recommendations on its Web site: http://www.cartercenter.org. The goal of the Center’s mission in Nepal is to demonstrate international support for and provide an independent assessment of the constituent assembly election process. The Center hopes that its activity will help ensure a credible process that is accepted by the people of Nepal and which serves to consolidate the gains of the ongoing peace process.
Nepal has embarked upon a challenging and historic process of transition to sustainable peace and inclusive multi-party democracy. A critical component of this larger process, as laid out in the November 2006 Comprehensive Peace Accord (CPA), is a constituent assembly (CA) election that will lead to the drafting of a new constitution. Despite the issues The Carter Center outlines below, the Center continues to believe that a Nov. 22, 2007, election remains an achievable goal for Nepal. However, as time is now short and another electoral delay may undermine the legitimacy of the government, urgent, unified, and effective action is required on several fronts.
The primary burden of effort rests upon the governing Eight Party Alliance (EPA), though there are important roles for marginalized groups, individual political parties, civil society, and the international community to play. Thus far Nepal has made remarkable strides in a short period of time and all stakeholders – not least the Nepali people themselves – are to be commended for this substantial achievement. However, it is essential that the government and other stakeholders commit to addressing all pending challenges promptly in order to solidify the gains of the peace process and ensure continued progress.
1. Demonstrate commitment to a credible constituent assembly election in November
Reports from Carter Center observers indicate a gap in trust between the people of Nepal and the present interim government, particularly at the central level. There remain doubts about the commitment of all parties in the Eight Party Alliance to the Nov. 22 election date. Recent Maoist pre-conditions relating to the declaration of a republic and large-scale revisions to the electoral system, made after all-party agreements were reached on these topics, do not help to instill confidence. Additionally, continued Maoist violence and aggressive behavior force the public to question the Maoists’ genuine interest in participating fully in the democratic process. The recent agreement between the government and a Janajati alliance is a positive and praiseworthy development. However, Nepalis from other historically marginalized groups remain concerned by what appears to be a lack of serious commitment to ensuring that they are sufficiently included in the ongoing political process. Finally, the fragile security situation, particularly in the Terai, provokes both short and long-term anxiety about the country’s future direction.
At present, there are only approximately 100 days until the planned CA election. Thus, from an electoral standpoint, the country is at a period in which discussions on changes to the election system must be brought to a close. Any final adjustments should take place immediately or be postponed for future elections in order to ensure the Election Commission has adequate time to prepare for the November election. Another electoral delay may undermine the legitimacy of the present interim government, which has as one of its core mandates the holding of the constituent assembly election. The Center is encouraged by the unity between the eight political parties that has been maintained throughout the peace process thus far, and is hopeful that they will sustain such coordination throughout the constituent assembly election.
The EPA government should take immediate and visible steps to restore the faith of the Nepali people in its commitment to the November constituent assembly election. An all-party statement pledging to conduct the election on time and abide by a code of conduct, backed up at the local level by political party election preparation and programs, will demonstrate the government’s dedication to the task at hand.
2. Take practical, concrete steps to address the concerns of marginalized groups
The CA Member Election Act has incorporated significant provisions for the inclusion of marginalized groups, which The Carter Center believes will ultimately have a far-reaching impact on Nepali politics and society. Additionally, The Carter Center congratulates the government and the Janajatis on the recently agreed 20-point understanding and hopes that this will set a positive precedent for other agitating groups. Other historically marginalized groups in Nepal such as Madhesis, women, Dalits, Muslims, and the disabled continue to press the government on a variety of demands. Some of these are specifically related to the election, such as the call for a fully proportional electoral system. However, many of the grievances go beyond electoral concerns. Regardless of the category, in most cases the main concern appears to be that the government is not sufficiently responsive and may not fulfill even promises it has already made.
In order to gain the trust of these marginalized groups and ensure they do not become spoilers in the CA election process, the government should not only continue with its ongoing negotiations but also implement specific, practical actions to gain these groups’ confidence. This is especially important in the Terai given the widespread mistrust toward the government. Additionally, the Center hopes that marginalized groups will realize that it is neither possible nor advisable to resolve all of their demands before the CA election. Some issues, such as state restructuring, are arguably best left for popularly elected representatives of the Nepali people to debate so that the final decision is viewed as legitimate. Moreover, the Center encourages these groups to consider that the gains to be had by holding the election under the currently proposed electoral system are likely to be greater than those achieved by stalling it. Compromise will be necessary from all sides to ensure that the peace process moves forward.
The government should promptly implement all agreements reached with marginalized groups, continue ongoing negotiations, and take further action in line with the spirit of the interim constitution. Additionally, leaders of marginalized groups should keep in mind the short time period left before the CA election and seek reasonable compromises so that their constituents are ultimately able to reap the benefits of the constituent assembly process.
3. Agree on a comprehensive security plan for the Terai and the rest of the country
The poor security situation in various parts of the country presents worrisome implications for the election. In particular, the Carter Center’s LTOs continue to receive reports of violence, extortion, and abduction by armed groups in the Terai. While the Center believes that the unrest could be significantly calmed if the government, through negotiations, takes additional timely measures to address the legitimate grievances of the Madhesi people, it is also necessary to simultaneously develop and implement an effective security plan in collaboration with Madhesi leaders to address ongoing criminal activity. Force should be used strategically and sensitively so as not to contribute to further alienation. However, it is of the utmost importance to re-establish police posts and ensure that well-trained, inclusive security forces receive sufficient political backing from the central level. Adequate security is necessary not just on election day, but also throughout the electoral process in order to allow for sufficient preparation by district election offices, voter education groups, and political parties.
Additionally, Maoist cadres and the Maoist-affiliated Young Communist League (YCL) persist with activities that violate the May 2006 Code of Conduct. The Maoist leadership is in a difficult position, having both to live up to their agreed commitments in the peace accord and to mollify increasingly vocal hardliners questioning the benefits of the peace process. Other political parties should consider that it is in the nation’s interest to help the Maoists with their successful transition to peace. Such support could include realistic discussions on how best to address the issue of the YCL and a willingness to engage in preliminary discussions on difficult questions regarding Security Sector Reform (SSR) and the process for integration of the People’s Liberation Army and Nepal Army laid out in the November 2006 arms management agreement.
However, the Maoists should also realize that their aggressive behavior continues to negatively affect the ongoing transition process and does not serve them well in their attempts to win the hearts and minds of the Nepali people and the international community. Maoist and YCL cadres need to cease all such behavior in order to demonstrate to the people of Nepal their desire to play a positive part in the ongoing peace process. Finally, if the upcoming constituent assembly election is to take place in a free and fair environment, and if voters are to be allowed to make informed choices, all political parties must be allowed to move and campaign freely across the country – regardless of their ideology.
The Center reiterates the need for the EPA government, in direct consultation with all relevant stakeholders such as Madhesi community leaders, to jointly develop a comprehensive and effective security plan in order to ensure a conducive environment in the Terai and around the country throughout the constituent assembly election process. Continued Maoist and YCL violence and aggressive behavior force the public to question the Maoists’ genuine interest in participating fully in the democratic process; all acts in violation of the Comprehensive Peace Accord must cease immediately.
4. Maintain electoral focus and momentum
The Carter Center is encouraged that the interim legislature-parliament has passed the Constituent Assembly Members Election Act. This Act sets out the electoral system for the CA and represents a significant step forward in electoral preparations. While there are a number of technical issues in the Act that remain to be resolved before the electoral system can be implemented, the Center is confident that the Election Commission’s regulations and directives will, for the most part, be able to remedy the existing gaps.
However, numerous provisions in the Act seem to place excessive trust in the political parties, with few mechanisms for accountability should they not live up to this trust. The most significant is the political decision to allow parties to assign candidates from the proportional representation (PR) list to the seats the party has won after the election. This practice has been used in only two other countries, Guyana and Serbia, and was widely condemned by observers as non-transparent for the voters and encouraging excessive party control over candidates. There is no reason to believe that its effects will be any different in Nepal. Additionally, it is possible this provision will further exacerbate internal party tensions as the party leadership engages in the controversial process of picking its winners, rather than providing resolution and closure in an already fragile, post-conflict context.
Consequently, political parties should submit and publish ranked candidate lists even though it is not required by law, in order to demonstrate their interest in allowing their own party’s voters to know exactly who they will be electing. Parties that do not follow this model should at a minimum ensure that after the election they pick competent individuals who are seen as legitimate leaders of the groups they are chosen to represent. The Center also strongly recommends that this provision for unranked PR lists not be carried forward in any future elections in Nepal.
The Center is supportive of the quotas for marginalized groups laid out on the proportional representation side of the election; however, the system ultimately selected is likely to be logistically complicated to implement. Though other, smaller marginalized groups (such as Muslims) were intended to be provided for under the interim constitution, they have been left out in the election law and the “other groups” category transformed into a reservation for all other Nepalis. The likely result of this new interpretation of the constitution will be that the “other” category is filled entirely by Brahmins and Chhetris.
Finally, confusion exists among the Nepali public over how the election system will actually work, and has resulted in suspicion from various marginalized groups that the government will use loopholes to deny them their rightful seats. It would behoove the government to ensure that accurate information is widely circulated in order to allay unnecessary concerns. There are several other outstanding electoral issues including legislation on the Constitutional Court and a final decision on electoral constituency boundaries that must be addressed in order for the Election Commission to finalize preparations for the CA election. These should be addressed immediately. It is also suggested that the Election Commission consider an extended period of party registration, given the postponement of the election from June to November. This could potentially provide an additional avenue for inclusion of marginalized groups by re-opening the opportunity for them to field political parties.
Given that the election is only approximately 100 days away, any final adjustments to the electoral law must take place immediately. Additionally, the Election Commission should remedy the existing technical gaps in the electoral law, clarify provisions that are causing confusion, and consider extending the period for political party registration. The government is also encouraged to make all outstanding legal and electoral decisions related to the Constitutional Court and the electoral constituency boundaries immediately. Finally, the Center highlights its serious concern regarding party selection of winning proportional representation candidates after the election and encourages parties to publish ranked candidate lists voluntarily.
5. Ensure a widespread, coordinated and effective voter education campaign and domestic observer presence
As noted in previous Carter Center pre-election statements, the government, Election Commission, political parties, civil society, and the international community have important roles in creating far-reaching and effective voter education and awareness campaigns. Providing the people of Nepal with opportunities for discussion about the special role of a constituent assembly election and how the new mixed electoral system will work will allow for an educated electorate that is able to make an informed choice on election day. Some encouraging efforts are underway by the election commission and civil society groups.
Additionally, an impartial and well-coordinated domestic observation presence is important for the constituent assembly election process. At present, there are several networks of organizations planning to observe the election, and the Center encourages these groups to work together to ensure that their efforts do not accidentally work at cross-purposes. There should be no competition between these different alliances as they all have the same goal: a non-biased, comprehensive review of Nepal’s electoral process. Donors and partner international organizations should encourage such collaboration while also stressing the importance of impartiality.
The Center encourages the government, the election commission, political parties, civil society and the international community to collaborate in order to implement a successful and far-reaching voter education campaign. Additionally, domestic observer groups should coordinate to generate plans for impartial and comprehensive election monitoring throughout Nepal.
Nepal continues to make significant progress in its ongoing peace process. The passage of the Constituent Assembly Members Election Act and continuing preparations by the Election Commission are positive signs that preparations are on track for the Nov. 22 election date. However, a strong, visible commitment from all political parties backed up by action on the ground as soon as possible is necessary in order to ensure that the agreed-upon goal of a November constituent assembly election is achieved. A second electoral delay is likely to harm the interim government’s credibility domestically and abroad.
Challenges remain and must be addressed quickly given the short timeframe. There is a need for the present government to build trust with the people of Nepal and specifically with historically marginalized groups in the manner it has successfully done so with Janajatis. It is also necessary for the government, in conjunction with all key stakeholders, to create and implement immediately an effective security plan for the country and particularly the Terai, where the involvement of security forces with substantial Madhesi participation and Madhesi community leaders will be of the utmost importance. Finally, the Center encourages the government to maintain electoral focus and momentum and for all relevant actors to participate in widespread voter education efforts and well-coordinated, impartial domestic observation efforts. None of these obstacles are insurmountable given sufficient political will and commitment by key actors. The Center believes that the above measures, taken in sum, will significantly contribute to creating an atmosphere conducive for the conduct of the November constituent assembly election.
The Center offers the above observations and recommendations in the spirit of cooperation and respect, and with the hope that they will provide useful discussion points for future action. The Center wishes to thank the Nepali officials, political party members, civic activists, and citizens, as well as representatives of the international community who have generously offered their time and energy to facilitate the Center’s efforts to observe the constituent assembly election process.
“Waging Peace. Fighting Disease. Building Hope.”
The Carter Center celebrates its 25th anniversary in 2007. A not-for-profit, nongovernmental organization, The Carter Center has helped to improve life for people in more than 65 countries by resolving conflicts; advancing democracy, human rights, and economic opportunity; preventing diseases; improving mental health care; and teaching farmers in developing nations to increase crop production. The Carter Center was founded in 1982 by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, in partnership with Emory University, to advance peace and health worldwide. Please visit http://www.cartercenter.org to learn more about The Carter Center.