No headway in stalemate over voting machines

Published September 7, 2021
This file photo shows Prime Minister Imran Khan being briefed on functions of the electronic voting machine. — White Star/File
This file photo shows Prime Minister Imran Khan being briefed on functions of the electronic voting machine. — White Star/File

ISLAMABAD: The Senate Standing Committee on Parliamentary Affairs is heading towards a deadlock on the issue of use of electronic voting machine (EVM) as the treasury members insisted on using the gadget while the opposition members rejected the idea for at least during the 2023 general elections.

During more than three-hour long meeting of the committee, presided over by Taj Haider of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), the opposition members raised serious questions over the efficacy and security of the EVM and criticised the government for what they called compelling the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) to use this gadget in the next elections.

A team of the Ministry of Science and Technology (MoST), headed by minister Shibli Faraz, had come well prepared to give a practical demonstration of the EVM and a mock exercise, but the opposition members showed no interest in it, saying that they were not convinced that the use of EVM could prevent rigging and malpractices in the elections.

The opposition members as well as the ECP officials were of the view that any hasty decision regarding the use of EVMs without removing the pitfalls and deficiencies could create a huge mess and problems for the country.

Opposition questions haste in introducing e-voting; minister rejects idea of phased launch

At one point, the opposition members clearly refused to participate in the practical demonstration of the machine, terming it useless in the absence of a categorical assurance from the government or the ECP that it would use the same machine in the next elections.

“When the ECP has already termed induction of EVMs premature then why is the government insisting on it and infringing upon the domain of the commission?” asked PPP’s Mustafa Nawaz Khokhar.

He said the proposed law before the committee allowed the ECP to procure the machines and when under the law, the commission would float a tender, it would receive bids from various companies, including those abroad.

He said he had come to know through the media that a Spanish company had already shown its interest in providing EVMs to Pakistan.

At this point, the chairman of the committee said they were here to discuss the concept and not a specific machine.

Interestingly, when all this discussion was taking place, federal ministers Shibli Faraz, Azam Swati and Ali Mohammad Khan, who were initially present in the meeting, had already left the room. Mr Faraz and Mr Khan, however, later joined the proceedings after more than an hour.

Mr Khokhar said that according to the science and technology minister, the EVM had been prepared in line with the guidelines provided by the ECP.

“Under which law, the ECP has given its guidelines to the government to prepare a machine?” he asked, adding that if the ECP had done so it had abdicated its own jurisdiction and powers.

Highlighting the alleged role of the establishment in the electoral process, the PPP senator regretted that they were not discussing “the real elephant in the room”. He said the real issue with the country’s electoral system was “pre-poll rigging and the role of the establishment in it”.

Mr Khokhar said the prime minister had no powers or authority to issue directives for the use of EVMs as it was solely the domain of the ECP.

During the committee’s meeting, the ECP officials said that under the Elections Act 2017, they were required to undertake pilot projects and use these EVMs. They said the ECP had conducted pilot projects during the by-elections on the National Assembly seat (NA-4 Peshawar) and Punjab Assembly seat (PP-10 Chichawatni) in 2017.

When some of the members tried to take the ECP to task for not coming out with their reports based on the pilot projects, it transpired that most of the committee members were even not aware of the fact that the ECP had already submitted its reports to the secretariats of both the National Assembly and the Senate some four years ago.

During the briefing, the MoST officials failed to give any satisfactory reply to the questions as to how after the introduction of EVMs they would be able to prevent fake voters from casting their votes.

At this, Mr Faraz said that although the ECP had not provided them any guideline regarding the voters’ verification, they had included it in the system and it would be done through biometric and swiping of computerised national identity cards. This practice, he said, would also eliminate the possibility of presiding officer misusing the technology.

Ali Zafar of the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) said the EVM system was just a concept under consideration and it was the jurisdiction of the ECP to procure machines and necessary equipment and frame rules on its usage. The government, he said, should not indulge in procurement and manufacturing of such technology.

Mr Faraz commented that the government was only advocating for the EVM in order to bring about transparency in the whole election process so that unnecessary controversy could be avoided in future elections.

Responding to the opposition’s point, Sania Nishtar of the PTI said it was beyond comprehension as to why introduction of modern technology in today’s age and time was being opposed at such learned and prestigious forum.

The committee will continue to discuss the issue on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Published in Dawn, September 7th, 2021

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