Nepal Voting System Will Determine Election Outcome

Parties could still find a compromise to electoral deadlock

The battle in Nepal over the voting system for twice-delayed elections may not sound important, but the choice of the system will likely determine the outcome of the election. This has brought debate on the subject to a stand-off, but a compromise is in the offing.

Under the terms of the interim constitution and an agreement last year between all parties, including the Maoists, elections to Nepal’s constituent assembly were to use two systems. Half of the elected delegates will be elected in a first-past-the-post system; the other half will be chosen proportionately. (There is a provision for some appointed delegates too, to ensure representation of minorities.) The Maoists have now blocked the election with a demand that the system be changed.

First-past-the-post is the electoral system most common in the US: Each party nominates a candidate for a seat, and the candidate with the most votes wins the election. In Nepal, where there are many parties, the system favors the large ones because opposition votes are scattered.

Under a proportional system, parties post a list of candidates in order, and voters vote for a party rather than a candidate. Seats are allocated to the parties according to their portion of the vote. If party A gets 25 percent of the vote, then their candidates get 25 percent of the seats at stake in the proportional phase, starting from the top of their list.

A proportional system represents varying public opinion well, but it can be hard to form a stable coalition government from those many different viewpoints. Worst, say opponents of the system, proportional voting breaks the link of accountability between candidates and voters: there is no direct representation.

The deal to use both systems and two ballot papers was a poor compromise, but a workable one at the time. The Maoists expected do well in the first-past-the-post vote and to dominate the proportional phase. The established parties expected to have a big advantage under the old system and to get good results from the proportional vote.

Both perspectives have changed in the last year. Private polling over the summer suggested that the Maoists might take as little as 10 percent of the first-past-the-post seats. Shortly after those poll results were leaked, the Maoists said that elections under current circumstances would be “meaningless.” They now demand a fully-proportional system.

The center-right Nepali Congress party expected to win the first-past-the-post election and to do well in the proportional phase. Neither now seems likely. Polls suggest the center-left UML will come out on top in direct voting, possibly with an outright majority of those seats. And the deep tensions in Nepal’s southern Terai region will rob the Congress of support it would have expected in areas like NC president Prime Minister Koirala’s home town. The Nepali Congress now says it will never allow fully-proportional voting.

With the election outcome at stake, neither the Maoists nor the NC can give up their positions. A possible compromise would be to keep both ballot papers but adjust the way seats are allocated. The system, called Mixed Member Representation, gives seats to winners of the first-past-the-post phase, but then allocates the rest of the seats so that the total number of seats in the election (not just those at stake in the proportional phase) reflect the proportional results. Smaller parties usually gain seats, and bigger parties generally lose them, but it is very difficult to predict the outcome.

Mixed Member Representation retains the direct election, satisfying Congress’ bottom line, but it also guarantees the Maoists the same number of seats they would have won in a pure proportional system. The idea has been floated twice before in Nepal and rejected both times as being complicated and unpredictable. Those same features might now be seen as virtues that make it acceptable.

John Child is The NewsBlaze Nepal Correspondent, a journalist in Kathmandu who writes about goings-on in and around Nepal and her neighbors.

John Child is The NewsBlaze Nepal Correspondent, a journalist in Kathmandu who writes about goings-on in and around Nepal and her neighbors.