The first Constituent Assembly elections in Nepal, held in 2008, were an important milestone in Nepal’s political history for they let the people’s representatives write the country’s primary law on their own. But, for Neil Kantha Uprety, an election commissioner then, they were more important because they let the public use electronic voting machines (EVMs) for the first time.
“That was a pilot project, and that proved successful,” Uprety says, “We were excited about its prospects in Nepal.”
While the voting machines were used for the first time in one constituency of Kathmandu, the excitement led the commission to expand it to six constituencies in the by-elections held the next year. The use of the EVMs in two constituencies of Morang, and one each of Dhanusha, Kaski, Rolpa, and Kanchanpur.
But, that was the last time Nepal used electronic machines in its nationwide general elections so far.
The use of electronic voting machines is not a debated issue per se, but why Nepal does not adopt this modern system is a curious case. Before every election, the issue gets into the limelight with the urban public raising demands for its use whereas the rural electorate remains innocent. Whereas the Election Commission was urging the government to make necessary arrangements to use voting machines for the upcoming federal and provincial parliamentary elections, this is not happening this time either.
Overall, why the reluctance still exists is a mystery.
The use of voting machines in 2008 was an encouraging move, remembers Uprety. This encouragement was also reflected in The Carter Center’s election observation report, “A pilot test of electronic voting machines in Kathmandu went well, a promising sign for future elections.”
But, that promise has not been realised in any other elections so far. In the 2017 federal and provincial polls, the commission discussed with parties the use of voting machines, but the political parties, especially Nepali Congress, CPN-UML and CPN-Maoist Centre rejected the idea.
Nonetheless, CPN-UML and Rastriya Prajatantra Party used voting machines in their latest general conventions to elect party leadership. But, the ruling Nepali Congress party made its members cast their ballot papers into a water tank. The party did not bother getting trolled for that.
It is hence ironic that the leaders promise a smart city, but the same leaders are rejecting the idea of an electronic voting system.
The current voting system of Nepal is not only traditional but also expensive and time-consuming. For instance, in the recently held local elections, the Election Commission printed around 20 million ballot papers, which cost Rs 110 million. Similarly, it also took the authorities a long time to count the votes.
Almost two weeks after the elections, the commission completed the vote counting of the Kathmandu metropolitan city.
Scientist Ram Rimal, the designer of Samyak-100, an electronic voting machine, says that there are more benefits to using EVMs. “It creates transparency; there will be no chances of disqualification of votes; it is a one-time investment and it provides results quickly,” Rimal summarises.
“If a country conducts the elections through EVMs, it does not need to spend millions on a ballot paper every election,” says Rimal.
The frowning fear
Uprety, who later also worked as the chief election commission, agrees. Once voting machines are used, the chances of poll rigging are almost zero, he highlights, adding this might be the reason why the parties are reluctant to use them.
“There are cases in our country where the election booths have been captured and ballot papers are torn,” says Uprety. “Political parties fear that they cannot do that once the EVMs are used.”
Some party leaders also confess this. Congress leader Chandra Bhandari also sees the immediate need for voting machines to maintain transparency and save time during the elections. “The fear among the political leaders about the technology is something that makes the country avoid EVMs,” says Bhandari. “The political leaders neither believe in themselves nor in technology.”
The government’s role
UML deputy general secretary Bishnu Rimal, meanwhile, blames the government for not introducing the system. “We are very positive about it; we even used it in our general convention,” he says, “Its unavailability, for which the government has to be blamed, is the only thing that is depriving us.”
Scientist Rimal says the commission needs to put additional effort to change the voting methodology of the country. He says rather than political leaders, it is the commission that is reluctant to introduce EVMs. “Despite our continuous efforts, the commission does not show any strong willingness.”
But, the commission has its own problem. Surya Prasad Aryal, the assistant spokesperson at the commission, says, “We are well aware of the benefits of electronic voting machines, but the difficulties in managing resources due to the government’s indifference and the reluctance of political parties propelled us to follow the traditional voting method.”
In addition, it is uncertain and unsure in the country when the elections will take place. Due to this, the concerned authority lacks sufficient time to the preparation for conducting elections through EVMs, says former chief election commission Uprety.