In a democracy, it is the inherent democratic right of the people to choose their representatives. But, the government cannot be considered fully representing the people unless the people have the right to choose the right to reject/”none of the above” (NOTA) options. Assurance of the availability of the right to reject or NOTA in the election procedure is a must to materialise the essence of democracy and freedom, but Nepal has not been able to materialise yet.
Democracy and freedom of expression
The powerful means of ensuring people’s participation in governance is the right to express one’s views and having the means to exercise that right. Keeping it simple, the theoretical and practical form of freedom of expression enjoyed by the people in a country is a means of examining the use of democracy. The generally accepted principle of election is that it should be fair and transparent, where every citizen should be given an opportunity to express their views.
If the channels of freedom of expression of the people are blocked or become less effective, or if freedom of expression is not exercised freely, or if it appears to be of a planned nature rather than fully manifested, there is little basis for believing that democracy is in line with its ideals. The right to reject is an integral part of freedom of thought and expression and has an interdependent relationship with the right to vote and freedom of expression.
Does the right to vote include the right to reject?
The simple understanding is if a process is carried out for any purpose to express one’s choice, one has the right to accept or reject it. Freedom of expression includes the right to speak as well as the right to silence.
In the same way, the right to vote means that a candidate does have the right to vote or the right to reject. There is no specific law allowing the right to reject as such yet in Nepal. However, in January 2014, the Supreme Court of Nepal passed a landmark judgment, which gives the voters the right to reject. They could cast negative votes, rejecting all the candidates if they do not want to vote for anyone.
Owing to the landmark decision, the concerned agencies were supposed to start their homework to ensure negative voting provisions in the electoral process. However, the ruling was not implemented in the elections of 2017. Five whole years after the first verdict, the Supreme Court again issued another directive order to formulate a law to allow the voters to reject candidates in the election in September 2019. But, neither the government nor the Election Commission seems to be working on providing citizens with the right to reject and choose NOTA.
Why is the right to reject necessary?
When voting in the election process, are the people compelled to cast their vote only for the candidate whom the political party trusts? What if all of the present candidates do not compel the voters to vote in favour of any of them, no matter how incompetent they may be? If the existing candidates or options are unacceptable, forcing them to accept without removing them is forcing them to choose the inferior option. Under the guise of democracy, it is not necessary to establish a system of choosing ‘least of all the least’ forever.
If there is dissatisfaction with the incumbent candidates, the people cannot be considered to be represented in the government as long as the people do not have the right to reject them. Then, such a government cannot be considered to exist in the true sense as a legitimate government. If any of the existing candidates are not found to be acceptable during the voting, the voters may express their opinion in such a way as to create the best competitive conditions for the candidates and reject the existing candidates for the purpose of governing and controlling the people.
Would not it be better if people do not participate in the voting process?
The non-participation of people in the election for a reason—they do not like the candidates—does not portray a healthy sign of democracy. Elections without the participation of the people or without the real will of the people cannot lead to the development of a good democratic culture.
A resolution passed by the United Nations General Assembly calls on all nations to participate in the decision-making process for the institutional development and consolidation of democracy. Therefore, in addition to the many practical difficulties, the justification for giving the voter a place to express his or her dissent to vote for any of the candidates (right to reject) is necessary to respect the inherent right of the people to seek the option they have chosen from the heart and reject other options given. Citizens have the right to select the candidate nominated by the political party and also the right to reject them.
Giving space is necessary and appropriate for a democratic election. In order to protect the right to secrecy of the citizen regarding the issue of non-voting, it will be necessary to make provision for the right to reject (NOTA) in the ballot paper in order to prevent the situation of not going to the polls for not liking the candidates.
Is voting a right or duty?
The right to vote or not to vote for a candidate in an election is the inherent right of the voter. Of course, there is no denying that participation in elections is a part of one’s civic duty but participating in elections is one thing and voting in one’s favour is a completely different matter.
Countries including Australia, Belgium, Greece and many countries in Latin America principally believe in compulsory voting (as a duty) raising the issue of participation. They have taken voting duty so seriously that they impose sanctions/punishment on the non-voters, having introduced the laws.
In our legal framework, there is no provision to show dissatisfaction with the number of votes given to the candidates, due to which even if the participation of the people in the voting process is seen, the real result as per the will of the people cannot be revealed.
Therefore, for the real existence of the right to vote, it is necessary to make provision for rejecting all candidates and to exercise it and give it legal recognition.