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Nepal Monitor: The National Online Journal

Carter Center on Pre-Election Conditions

The Carter Center Nepal elections observation mission says talking is good, but there is need for some real actions before we conduct free and fair CA elections.



The Carter Center Nepali mission says that the formation of an interim government is a good step, but there are “several critical challenges.” The highlights of the preliminary findings of the 50-district observation by the CC mission in Nepal include: Uncertainty over CA elections date, peace process on despite challenging obstacles, need for acceptable compromises among key actors in the face of seemingly intractable disagreements, “positive role” of Election Commission officials in preparing for the elections, notable public participation and debate on key issues, need for continued progress towards successful elections, etc.

The statement says that broadly accepted electoral results will be key to achieving sustainable peace in Nepal. Although the security environment has improved following the signing of the CPA, the report notes "unacceptable levels of continued fear, intimidation and physical violence." It says prior to the conduct of the constituent assembly election, the government should devise a strategy to ensure that voters are able to depend on the police for their protection and feel that they can go the polls in a calm and secure environment.

The report says there is a general legal framework available for conducting elections, but the country still lacks critical electoral legislation, such as an amendment of the interim constitution (if the election date is later than June 14, 2007); passage of critical electoral legislation; a prompt and broadly accepted agreement on the work of the Delimitation Commission; and completion of the voter registration list.

The preliminary statement also says democratic space for all is a precondition for the elections but some parties have not been allowed to operate in some places, such as in Terai, and that the political sphere is largely dominated by the four largest parties. The provision requiring 10,000 signatures in order to register with the election commission is another concern.

Widespread lack of awareness among the Nepali people about the purpose and meaning of the constituent assembly election is another challenge. There is also confusion on the roles of key actors in the election process. A significant voter awareness campaign is necessary in order to address this gap. The mission calls for a sufficient campaign period to raise awareness.

There is still a noticeable lack of inclusivity within political party and civil society ranks at the district and local levels. A genuinely inclusive, transparent, and accountable process is necessary for the creation of a representative constituent assembly.

The report says there are some problems regarding voter’s registration and that may pose a significant challenge including the prospect of requiring additional time for their resolution. There is also the need to clarify procedures regarding citizenship certificates.

Finally, the report calls for more transparency in the electoral process.

The full text of the statement emailed to Nepal Monitor by the Nepal mission of CC is as follows:

The Carter Center Election Observation Mission in Nepal
Pre-Election Statement
16 April 2007

Much debate is presently taking place about the constituent assembly electoral calendar. The Carter Center welcomes this discussion and hopes that the above observations and findings will usefully contribute to the debate.

This statement presents the observations and preliminary findings of The Carter Center’s international election observation mission on the present electoral environment and preparations for the constituent assembly election in Nepal.

The Center was formally invited by the government of Nepal, several political parties including the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), and the election commission to observe the constituent assembly election process. In early March, the Center deployed teams of long-term observers (LTOs) representing eight different nationalities throughout the country. At present, these LTOs have visited 50 of Nepal’s 75 districts, including villages in remote districts such as Humla, Rukum, and Taplejung. This pre-election statement reflects information gathered by the LTOs and headquarters staff in meetings at the central, district, and local level 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: 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, in order to 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.

I. Background
Following the Jana Andolan II in April 2006, the government of Nepal and the Maoists engaged in a peace process to end the country’s decade-long conflict. After a period of challenging negotiations, a historic Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) was signed on Nov. 21, 2006, a key element of which included the framework for a constituent assembly election to facilitate the drafting of a new constitution for Nepal. Several important achievements have helped continue the momentum of the peace process including the promulgation of an interim constitution, completion of the first phase of arms management, and most recently the April 1 formation of an interim government that includes the Maoists.

II. General Findings
The Carter Center congratulates Nepal’s political leaders on the interim government’s formation and notes the important responsibility of the interim government to conduct a credible and inclusive electoral process in which all Nepalis feel free to exercise their democratic rights without pressure from any party or group. The constituent assembly election will be a crucial step towards securing the progress made during the peace process, strengthening the country’s democratic institutions, and continuing on the path to a better future for all Nepalis.
There are several critical challenges, however, that need to be addressed to ensure the success of the election. On April 13, 2007, the Election Commission of Nepal released a statement noting preparatory timeline concerns, in part based on the lack of an electoral law. The election commission’s statement indicated that it would be unable to conduct a technically sound election within the timeframe specified by the government. It is now up to the Nepali political leadership to determine the best path forward in order to ensure that a credible electoral process takes place in a realistic timeframe. The Center expresses its sincere hope that Nepalis will work together in the coming days to achieve this goal. While delay beyond June generates understandable uncertainty, a flawed electoral process could also undermine the peace process.

The Carter Center commends the commitment of all of the actors in Nepal’s peace process to maintaining forward momentum toward the constituent assembly election and resolving difficult issues through peaceful dialogue. In less than one year’s time, the country has experienced tremendous political upheaval that has touched the lives of all Nepalis and created unprecedented opportunities for democratic reform. Despite challenging obstacles, the peace process has continued and the Center recognizes the determination of key actors to find acceptable compromises in the face of seemingly intractable disagreements.

The Center also recognizes the positive role that the election commission has played thus far and lauds its commitment to proceed with election preparations despite difficult circumstances. At both the central and the district levels, Carter Center observers report that commission staff has been fulfilling their mandate to prepare for the constituent assembly election to the best of their ability, at times working amid threats to their personal safety. Similarly, election commission officials have also been coordinating and sharing information with political parties at the central and district levels.

Additionally, the Center acknowledges the role of Nepal’s diverse communities and their dedication to ensuring that their voices are included in the political process. Public participation and debate on key issues – expressed in a constructive manner – is critical to the constituent assembly’s production of a document that reflects Nepal’s rich diversity and is responsive to the needs of the Nepali people.

Given the vital importance of the ongoing constituent assembly electoral process for Nepal’s democratic institutions, the political parties, the election commission, and ultimately for the people of Nepal, it is imperative that the ongoing discussions about the electoral calendar take into consideration the challenges that need to be addressed to ensure continued progress towards successful elections. Broadly accepted electoral results will be a key factor in achieving sustainable peace in Nepal. The Center’s findings echo many of the comments already expressed by other stakeholders in the process, including the Election Commission of Nepal.

A. Security Environment
Although the security environment has improved following the signing of the CPA, reports from Carter Center observers around the country repeatedly indicate unacceptable levels of continued fear, intimidation and physical violence. The poor law and order situation limits freedom of movement for political party leaders and election and government officials, as well as Nepali citizens.

Groups in the Terai and elsewhere continue to conduct violent and disruptive activities that, if not halted, will prevent a credible election process. The Carter Center mission has heard verified reports of election officials locking themselves in their offices out of fear and in order to continue their work. The unrest in the Terai in particular has disrupted life in that area of the country over the past several months and resulted in unnecessary death and violence, most recently in Gaur. The interim government should immediately prioritize initiating dialogue with relevant stakeholders and find a way to address the broader issues of inclusion of historically marginalized people such as the Madhesis, janajatis, women, and others to ensure that the peace process remains on track.

Additionally, despite agreements at the central level by all parties to ensure that intimidation, extortion, and harassment cease, and that all seized properties are returned, these commitments are yet to be fully implemented and violations are not consistently condemned and redressed when they occur. Carter Center observers have noted widespread concern at the district and village level regarding reported instances where local Maoist cadres continue with behavior banned under the CPA. The behavior that is reported includes threats to return to war, abductions and unlawful arrests, collection of illegal taxes, and other activities. LTOs have also noted a widespread perception that the Maoists retain some arms. Though the Center cannot verify this allegation outside of specific instances, its recurrence in interviews around the country is noteworthy as an indication of the general public’s assessment of the security environment.

It is vitally important that all parties ensure that agreements made at the central level are fully implemented by their cadres in order to create a secure environment conducive to holding the constituent assembly election. The responsibility of party leadership extends to all levels and includes sister organizations such as youth wings. All parties should also acknowledge the residual fear that exists amongst the Nepali public and take proactive steps to demonstrate their commitment to peaceful participation in the democratic process. The Carter Center particularly encourages the Madhesi groups and the Maoists to work diligently with all other stakeholders to contribute to an improved security environment.

Maintenance of law and order in the country is presently the responsibility of the Nepal police. However, Carter Center observers report public perceptions of low morale and capacity among the police and a lack of confidence that the present force is able to provide adequate security. Additionally, in some areas re-establishment of police posts has proved difficult due to the insecure environment and lack of manpower. Prior to the conduct of the constituent assembly election, the government should devise a strategy to ensure that voters are able to depend on the police for their protection and feel that they can go the polls in a calm and secure environment.

B. Lack of Critical Electoral Legislation and Decisions
At present, the constituent assembly election law and other key legislation and decisions related to the constituent assembly election remain outstanding. This legal framework provides the base necessary for electoral administration authorities to proceed with their work. As the election commission noted in its April 13 press statement, without these core elements in place, the commission is unable to initiate tasks necessary to prepare for the election such as political party and candidate registration, voter education, and design and printing of ballots. Consequently, Nepali political leadership should address the following outstanding issues with an understanding that additional time will be required following their resolution for subsequent election administration activities:

1. Amendment of the interim constitution (if the election date is later than June 14, 2007);
2. Passage of critical electoral legislation;
3. A prompt and broadly accepted agreement on the work of the Delimitation Commission;
4. Completion of the voter registration list.

Moreover, the Carter Center hopes that sufficient time is allocated to allow for public scrutiny, discussion, and debate on the above issues in order to ensure the quality of these crucial decisions and the resultant electoral process.

C. Democratic Space
Most political parties have only recently begun campaigning. However, Carter Center observers have already noted an inability on the part of some parties to freely organize activities outside, and sometimes within, district headquarters. LTOs have received credible reports in the Terai of so-called “no go” zones where government officials and political party members are not allowed to enter. All individuals and political parties – regardless of their ideology – should be allowed to move and campaign freely in Nepal. Any violations of this principle should be publicly condemned by all stakeholders when they occur.

Additionally, Carter Center LTOs have observed that smaller parties across the political spectrum feel squeezed out of the political process. Reports from around the country have indicated that the political sphere is largely dominated by the four largest parties. The Center encourages leadership at the central, district, and local levels to ensure that smaller parties are substantively included in the political process, rather than decisions being made only by a small group of representatives from the large parties.

Finally, an area of concern for parties that are not already part of the interim parliament is the provision requiring 10,000 signatures in order to register with the election commission. The Carter Center encourages the Nepali political leadership to ensure that adequate time is provided to allow new parties to gather signatures for registration so that they are not prevented from participating in the political process.

D. Voter Awareness and Campaigning
Carter Center observers report a widespread lack of awareness among the Nepali people about the purpose and meaning of the constituent assembly election. Additionally, they also report confusion among key electoral actors, including district election offices, as to who is directly responsible for the conduct of voter education campaigns. To the best of their ability, all stakeholders should intensify efforts to provide information and improve understanding about the election among the people of Nepal. Furthermore, the election commission should clarify the role of district election offices in this effort. If the majority of Nepalis are unaware or do not understand the constituent assembly election process in which they are participating, the credibility of the election will be undermined. A significant voter awareness campaign is necessary in order to address this gap.

The Center also notes the importance of ensuring that there is a sufficient campaign period that allows political parties to provide voters with clear information about their party platforms. This will enable voters to make informed decisions about for whom to cast their vote.

E. Wider Inclusiveness
Previously, many groups in Nepal have not enjoyed full and genuine participation in the political process. The constituent assembly election is unlike an ordinary parliamentary election and in order for the results to be accepted broadly, extra care should be taken to include the perspectives of previously underrepresented groups. The Center welcomes the proposed introduction of a quota system to ensure more inclusive representation and encourages the new interim government, political parties, and civil society to go even further to include the perspectives of marginalized groups throughout the entire constituent assembly election process. At present, Carter Center observers note there is still a noticeable lack of inclusivity within political party and civil society ranks at the district and local levels. All stakeholders should abide by the spirit of the CPA by creating a genuinely inclusive, transparent, and accountable process that facilitates the creation of a representative constituent assembly.

F. Voter Registration
Although the process of updating the voter registration list appears generally to have gone well, Carter Center observers have noted some problems that have not yet been addressed and that pose a significant challenge including the prospect of requiring additional time for their resolution:

1. Present legislation requires that individuals vote in their area of permanent residence and obtain a migration certificate prior to leaving in order to register to vote in a new location. Given the number of people displaced by the conflict as well as those for whom it was not possible to obtain such documentation, there is a reasonable concern that a percentage of the Nepali population will be effectively disenfranchised.

2. The unlawful seizure of voter lists in Kathmandu Valley as a response to the migrant voter issue has yet to be addressed. This is a violation of the CPA and also endangers the credibility of the electoral process. Any party that has seized voter lists should instruct their cadres to immediately return any confiscated lists, and the election commission should re-do voter registration in areas where the lists have been destroyed.

3. The violence and bandhs that occurred during the voter registration period in the eastern Terai made it impossible to complete registration in some areas. As needed, the election commission should re-do voter registration in all affected areas in order to ensure voter list accuracy.

Additionally, although the process of distributing citizenship certificates throughout the country is distinct from the voter registration process, the two are intertwined in the minds of many Nepalis. Carter Center observers have noted that confusion and problems related to the citizenship process, including credible reports of instances where eligible persons did not receive citizenship certificates and were subsequently excluded from the voter list. In some areas, this has engendered a negative public perception of the voter registration process. It is important that Nepali authorities provide clear and consistent information about these two distinct processes. Additionally, authorities must ensure that the procedure and deadline for individuals who obtained citizenship documents after the formal voter registration period closed to add their names to the voter list is clearly and widely publicized.

Finally, the Center is concerned that the voter registration process does not allow for public scrutiny of a complete preliminary voter’s list. Without a public display, it will be difficult to know whether the list contains serious inaccuracies until election day itself, at which point it will be too late to correct any mistakes.

G. Transparency
Throughout the peace process there have been some complaints about a lack of transparency within the political parties. One present example, which is likely to exacerbate the general trend, is the provision in pending legislation before parliament that would allow parties to allocate elected seats to any candidate within their proportional representation candidate list after the election result has been declared, rather than allocating the seats starting according to a ranked candidate list. The former system, if adopted, would remove the ability of voters to know who is likely to get elected from a candidate list and give political parties disproportionate control over their candidates. As both systems will allow for quotas for marginalized groups to be preserved, the Center encourages the political leadership to consider selecting the process which will be most transparent for the voters. The quota system already suggested by the election commission could serve as a starting point for discussion.

III. Conclusion
Much debate is presently taking place about the constituent assembly electoral calendar. The Carter Center welcomes this discussion and hopes that the above observations and findings will usefully contribute to the debate.

During this critical time, the Center reminds all stakeholders of the need to focus intently on the ideals enshrined in the interim constitution and the goal of the upcoming electoral process: to enable the sovereign Nepali people to select their own representatives and confer upon them the legitimacy to decide Nepal’s future direction. By making this principle the singular focus of all electoral decisions, the country will place itself solidly on the path toward the creation of vigorous and healthy democracy in Nepal.

The Carter Center offers its observations and recommendations in the spirit of cooperation and respect. The Center wishes to thank the Nepali officials, political party members, civic activists, and citizens, as well 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.


CONTACTS:
In Atlanta: Deborah Hakes, +1 404 420 5124
In Kathmandu: Darren Nance, +977 1 444 5055/1446


Posted by Editor on April 16, 2007 1:52 PM