On June 26, President Bidhya Bhandari, the supreme commander of the army, approved the government’s request to mobilize the army during the second phase of local elections. Lack of presidential approval had not deterred the army, of course; it had been patrolling the streets in the Terai-Madhes for weeks.
Deploying the army during elections is a relatively new trend. Until 2013, the Nepal government considered the security services of the Nepal Police sufficient. The army’s role was confined to transporting ballot papers and boxes to polling stations.
But the government’s thinking has changed.
When the first Constituent Assembly (CA) elections took place in 2008, both the Nepal Army and the Maoists’ Peoples’ Liberation Army were under the supervision of the United Nations Mission in Nepal. Security at the polls was the responsibility of the Nepal Police, the Armed Police Force (APF), and a temporary police force.
But the first CA failed to produce a constitution despite two term extensions. The Assembly was dissolved, and the government was left in a state of disarray. In March 2013, sitting Supreme Court Chief Justice Khil Raj Regmi temporarily assumed the role of prime minister to oversee a second round of CA elections. Citing security reasons, the government, for the first time, mobilized the army to help manage elections.
The government rationalized the mobilization by arguing that obstruction from the hardline Mohan Baidya faction of the Maoist Party, which opposed the polls, could disrupt the elections. The army was later dragged into controversy when leaders from the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist)—these days called Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre)—accused officers of exchanging ballot boxes while they were being transported to counting centers. The allegations were never substantiated. A high-level parliamentary committee headed by Laxman Lal Karna was formed to investigate the matter. As of now, the committee has not submitted its report to the parliament.
Following 2013’s precedent, the government has again mobilized the army to manage security at local-election polling areas deemed to be on high alert. And, as in 2013, officials have pointed to the possibility of poll disruptions by agitating parties, namely the Madhes-based Rastriya Janata Party-Nepal, as well as another breakaway Maoist party led by Netra Bikram Chand “Biplav,” as justification. The parties report that hundreds of cadres have been detained around the country on suspicion of “anti-election activities,” and are being held until after the elections. They have accused the police of surveilling party members, making arbitrary arrests, and using undue force to subdue protesters.
Prior to the first phase of local elections, the Ministry of Home Affairs determined that at least 226,000 security personnel would be required for election security. Of these, 54,000 were to come from the Nepal Police, 30,000 from the APF, and 1,000 would be intelligence staff deployed from the Home Ministry. The Home Ministry also planned to hire 75,000 temporary police officers. These forces were not considered sufficient to cover the entire country, so roughly 30,000 security personnel were to be deployed from the army.
Yet when the government revised its plans for the elections, deciding to hold them in different parts of the country over two phases (now changed to three), it did not revise its security plans. The need for additional forces has diminished, and there is no reason the Nepal Police cannot handle the existing threats. Still, soldiers are out on patrol.
For its part, the army, whose strength stands at nearly 100,000, has expanded its influence in society through numerous business schemes and road construction projects in recent years—a dubious feat given that it has avoided jurisdiction of anti-corruption laws. It also bolstered its public image after the 2015 earthquake, when it prominently took charge of rescue and recovery operations.
Police presence during elections is common in any democratic country, but the Nepal government’s growing comfort with calling on the army to provide basic security is troubling. One concern is that the army is being used as a not-so-subtle psychological tool to deter protesters. Another is that domestic law and order do not traditionally fall within the army’s purview. To prevent further escalation in the conflict, lawmakers need to find a political solution. An investigation by a parliamentary probe committee would go a long way toward restoring trust on both sides. The answer certainly will not come from deploying soldiers against civilians.