Nepal dispatch: Supreme Court to rule on constitutionality of electoral commission’s effort to suppress social media campaign Dispatches
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Nepal dispatch: Supreme Court to rule on constitutionality of electoral commission’s effort to suppress social media campaign

Jony Mainaly is JURIST’s Staff Correspondent in Nepal.  She files this from Kathmandu. 

This past Monday, October 31, a writ petition against Nepal’s Election Commission was filed in the Supreme Court of Nepal after the Commission attempted to crackdown (Nepali) on the ‘No, Not Again’ campaign— a social media campaign that calls for boycotting tried and tested leaders of major political parties. The petitioner claimed that the issuance of the press release was unconstitutional as it aimed to render freedom of speech, a constitutional right of citizens, ineffective.

The social media campaign started in July 2022, and has gained momentum in the last few days in the run-up to federal parliamentary and provincial polls scheduled for November 20. The campaign uses headshots of the top leaders of the main political parties who have been in the political mainstream for decades. Social media posts circulated by the campaigners say ‘you have contributed enough now it’s time for the new faces’, and ask them to retire from politics.

The campaigners have called out all the past Prime Ministers who have offered themselves as candidates this time as well. The posted headshots include those of incumbent Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba, former prime minister K.P Sharma Oli, Pushpakamal Dahal (Prachanda), Madhav Nepal, Jhalanath Khanal, and Dr. Baburam Bhattarai. Dr. Baburam Bhattarai, however, has not lodged his candidacy this time.

The campaign seemed to erupt in the backdrop of unhealthy alliances (only-to-win-election alliances) forged by different political parties to ensure their victory. The 2017 election–the first general election in Nepal after the promulgation of the 2015 constitution–also witnessed such alliances between the two major political parties, the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist) and Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre). They promised following the election that they would merge their party to form the Communist Party of Nepal. Nepali voters starving for political stability in the country provided a landslide victory to these parties. They received two-thirds majority and formed a government led by K.P Sharma Oli.

The post-election party merger between these two leftist parties made it seem that political stability was inevitable in Nepal. However, this appearance was short-lived. Extreme intra-party conflict led to a series of political feuds ultimately leading to dissolution of the Parliament twice that was only reinstated by the decision of the Supreme Court of Nepal. In a different decision the Supreme Court of Nepal annulled the merger, putting two merged parties in their erstwhile status.

Again, the political parties are forming such alliances, though among different political parties in the run-up to the November 20 election.

Frustrated with such pre-election alliances, campaigns are formed and circulated in social media.

However, the Election Commission—a constitutional body—has now warned against the campaign and other similar social media campaign. With the issuance of its press release, the Commission threatened to stop dissemination of fake news and hate speech against candidates in the face of the upcoming election. Claiming that the campaign was against the Election (Offense and Punishment) Act, 2016; Election Code of Conduct 2022; and Electronic Transaction Act, 2011, the press release warned the campaigners to face imprisonment of up to 5 years or a fine of Rs. 100000 (approx USD 750) or both in case of continuation of such act.

Reacting against the press release, social media users claim such a ban on freedom of speech is not only unconstitutional under freedom of speech (Article 17 of the Constitution of Nepal) but also harmful to the budding democracy in the country where state machinery tries to silence the voice of people.

Now it is up to the Supreme Court of Nepal to say whether the campaign is freedom of speech, or an act against election law/code of conduct.

Regardless of the Court’s verdict on the legality of the campaign, the campaign itself conveys a stern message to the mainstream political parties that enough is enough and that there’s a limit to people’s patience and tolerance. The message was loud and clear during local elections held in May, where many independent candidates went through the election with sweeping victories. One way or the other, the mainstream political parties who have least served the interest of people are facing surmounting challenges when they face their constituencies during elections.