Leaked ECP letter to Nadra over internet voting sparks controversy

Published September 17, 2021
This file photo shows a board with the Election Commission of Pakistan's logo and 'Election Commission of Pakistan' written on it. — Photo courtesy Radio Pak/File
This file photo shows a board with the Election Commission of Pakistan's logo and 'Election Commission of Pakistan' written on it. — Photo courtesy Radio Pak/File

ISLAMABAD: The leak of a letter written by the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) to the National Database and Registration Authority (Nadra) over internet voting has sparked a new controversy.

The letter reveals that Nadra intends to engage the ECP in a new contract amounting to Rs2.4 billion for the development of an i-voting system, though the existing agreement still holds the field.

“ECP is of the view that in the first instance, Nadra may inform the fate of the previous project that why Nadra is going to abandon the previous system and on what grounds and on which considerable sum of money equal to Rs66,500,000 has been already dispensed with,” reads the letter, a copy of which is available with Dawn.

“Nadra may also inform that in the presence of an existing system with similar output, why should ECP go for a new contract amounting to Rs2.4 billion? If the existing system has some loopholes or deficiencies, then who is responsible for those deficiencies and whether these could/would be removed? Has Nadra fixed the responsibility on anyone,” it reads.

The ECP’s information technology wing in its letter, written to the Nadra chairman in response to Nadra’s letter followed by a reminder, reiterated that the commission being a constitutional entity “shall discharge its constitutional obligation as per Article 218 (3) of the Constitution”.

Commission issues notices to ministers over diatribe against it, CEC

“Further, the responsibility and execution of any new methodology is the primary and sole responsibility of ECP, for which it stands committed, provided the technology is implementable and practical in the given timeframe,” the letter reads.

The ECP has also expressed dismay over the general tone and tenor used, particularly in para-1 (h) of the letter dated Aug 20, 2021, issued by Nadra saying that the “ECP should consider progressing positively on Nadra’s proposed system at the earliest; otherwise, there might be unwanted and uncalled for delays”.

“The language used in the letter is leading to the impression that ECP is a subordinate body of Nadra, which is trying to dictate a constitutional body, which may be avoided in future correspondence,” the ECP asserts.

When contacted, a senior Nadra official disclosed that the i-voting system used earlier was developed to be piloted by the ECP in four by-elections for 38 constituencies in 2018.

He said it was the ECP’s own decision to use the system only in two by-elections in 2018. During that exercise, he added, the role of Nadra was to provide technical support to the ECP, whereas using the i-voting system was the sole discretion of the commission.

The official said the i-voting system was already in place and currently in the custody of the ECP. “As per the contractual obligations, the ECP was supposed to release the long outstanding Rs28.5 million to Nadra,” he claimed.

He said that in a bid to ensure accountability and transparency, Nadra chairman Tariq Malik had proposed a strategy and plan for a new i-voting system as per the guidelines laid down by the government, federal cabinet, president, ECP, parliamentary committee, international auditors and other stakeholders.

“Through the new proposed system, Nadra will assist the ECP in developing its independent infrastructure, data centre with dedicated servers, non-Nadra dependent network, third-party software and human resource capacity building. Election Commission will be independent of conducting i-voting for overseas Pakistanis. Nadra’s servers and computers will not be used in this system,” the official explained.

He said Nadra had urged the ECP to progress positively on the proposed system so as to meet the project plan timelines as per expectations of all stakeholders.

ECP notices to ministers

Meanwhile, the ECP issued notices to two federal ministers, seeking explanation over their diatribe against the commission and the chief election commissioner (CEC).

Informed sources told Dawn that Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry and Railways Minister Azam Swati have been asked to provide evidence to substantiate their allegations and given seven days to submit a reply.

Azam Swati had last week accused the ECP of receiving “bribes and always rigging polls” and asserted that such institutions should be “set ablaze”.

The remarks were made by Mr Swati during a meeting of the Senate Standing Committee on Parliamentary Affairs held to discuss two controversial election-related bills and came only days after the ECP raised 37 objections to the federal government’s plan to introduce electronic voting machines (EVMs) in the next general elections.

Later in the day, Fawad Chaudhry accused the ECP of becoming “opposition’s headquarters” and alleged that the CEC was acting as a “mouthpiece of the opposition”. He said the CEC should not become a tool in the hands of small political parties. He alleged that the CEC had played politics of ‘stupid’ objections to electronic voting machines. “If they want to do politics, then response will come,” he added.

The information minister said it was not the entire ECP that was opposed to the government’s proposals, but “the chief election commissioner is more interested in acting as a mouthpiece of the opposition”. He alleged it was possible that the CEC had “personal sympathies” for the PML-N supremo due to his close connections with the latter.

The tirade by the ministers against the ECP and CEC ignited a heated controversy, with the opposition leaders slamming the ministers and supporting the position taken by the ECP against introduction of EVMs in haste.

The ECP team, which had walked out of the Senate standing committee’s meeting as a mark of protest against Mr Swati’s remarks on Friday last, claimed that the ministers had also misbehaved with them at a meeting held at Aiwan-i-Sadr.

In a related development, the ECP officials skipped a meeting on EVMs and internet voting held at Aiwan-i-Sadr on Thursday. The meeting was chaired by President Dr Arif Alvi.

Published in Dawn, September 17th, 2021

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