On May 9, the government first hastily issued an ordinance binding the Election Commission of Pakistan to procure Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) for casting votes in the general elections. Then last Wednesday, before the commencement of parliamentary debate and before a nod from the commission, two federal ministers and government officials displayed untested EVMs before the media as panacea for free and fair polls.
Why this obsession with electronic voting? Is the absence of electronic voting machines the real issue in electoral fraud or in manipulated power transfers in Pakistan?
Under the Constitution, the life of an ordinance is 120 days and is extendable by another term of the same period. With the opposition-led majority in the Senate, there is little chance of getting it passed by the Parliament. So, what does the prime minister wish to achieve by a consensus-less legislation for a maximum of no more than eight months?
Neither political parties nor the Election Commission are against the use of technology in ensuring free and fair voting. Some time ago, the bipartisan parliamentary committee on election reforms deliberated on this issue for years before finalizing a comprehensive Election Act 2017. There was unanimous agreement on the use of technology but only very cautiously.
The legislature has realized the need for voting by overseas Pakistanis. Section 94 (1) of Election Act 2017 says: “The commission may conduct pilot projects for voting by overseas Pakistanis in by-elections to ascertain the technical efficacy, secrecy, security and financial feasibility of such voting and shall share the results with the government, which shall within 15 days from the commencement of a session of a House after the receipt of the report, lay the same before both Houses of Parliament.”
The doors for electronic voting machines were also kept open. Section 103 provides: “The ECP may conduct pilot projects for voting by overseas Pakistanis and utilization of EVMs and biometric verification system in by elections in addition to the existing manual procedure for voter verification, casting and counting of votes to assess the technical efficacy, secrecy, security and financial feasibility of the EVMs and biometric verification system.”
So, what is Imran Khan trying to prove? Why this haste?
The government claimed that the opposition is obsessed with covering up its corruption and is not serious about electoral reforms. The Election Commission was consulted and was on board already, it claimed. But is it true?
The ECP promptly denied that it was taken on board. It said that it was not against the use of technology in voting but was wary about any hasty decision that will compromise the quality of polls. Who can disagree with this? Even some developed countries which adopted the system had to abandon it when it failed to inspire voters.
EVMs are prohibitively expensive. Pakistan will need at least 350,000 machines each costing Rs150,000
In a country where a simpler technological innovation like RTS is hijacked with impunity, who will trust untested EVMs too readily? It appears that the prime minister was shown a very old local laboratory made voting machine. Without knowing that it had already been rejected by the ECP a decade ago, he flaunted it as “tabdeeli.”
EVMs cannot check ballot stuffing and booths capturing nor can it prevent the mysterious midnight phone calls from ‘No Caller ID.’ EVMs also cannot end summoning winning candidates and so called electables to offices of state agencies and force them to change loyalties. EVMs also cannot stop manipulations to disqualify someone from his party’s leadership and throw out others from even electoral contests.
EVMs are prohibitively expensive also. Pakistan will need at least 350,000 machines each costing Rs150,000 — a whopping 52 billion besides spending on maintenance, security and supplies.
Sometime in 2012, NADRA also explored e-voting by expats. It concluded that it was feasible only if voting was held in embassies after electronic thumb verification by the embassy officials acting as presiding officers. It requires expat voters to travel to the far-off consulates besides addressing reservations of some Middle Eastern countries to the conduct of political activity on their soil. Did the prime minister ask NADRA if indeed it had overcome these issues?
The methodology in the Election Act 2017 for EVMs and expats voting, namely the pilot projects, have not yet been completed to the satisfaction of the implementing body. The prime minister cannot force the commission to do what it technically cannot do.
The real issue is the stealing of people’s mandate by newer ways which came into sharp focus during the previous elections.
People’s mandate has been stolen by making and breaking political parties, by arm twisting of the electables to switch political loyalties and by propping up overnight mysterious militant groups to cut into the vote bank of mainstream political parties.
A weak administration is thus placed in the driving seat. As it appears to be the product of democratic processes a veneer of ‘de-jure’ is carefully woven around it by the usual trappings of wailing sirens, beating drums, trumpeting bugles and men in uniform saluting in obedience. This ‘de-jure’ is then manipulated by the back seat drivers, the de-facto masters. And if it appeared to not toe the line, it is then threatened with destabilization by militants and ideologues close to the real power wielders as in Faizabad dharna in 2017.
A state vehicle driven in this fashion is doomed to meet a disastrous accident. Not the EVMs but the manipulated power transfer must be central to any discussion aimed at putting the electoral house in order. Is the obsession with EVMs driven by a desire to drown the real debate in dithering over the peripheral?
The writer is a former PPP senator