ALTHOUGH the government bulldozed legislation on electronic voting machines through parliament, the reality is that EVMs are now the law. The next critical step centres on how this law will become a practical reality that underpins the democratic process. The use and success or failure of these machines in the next general election will have significant and lasting consequences for the country. The gargantuan task that lies ahead requires the government to not just facilitate the mass production of such machines, but to support the Election Commission of Pakistan at every step as it endeavours to install, extensively test and safeguard this sensitive equipment. The government must ensure it meets every demand coming from the ECP and assist with dummy runs to iron out glitches, which are to be expected as the country embarks on its new journey to use EVMs.

There are many challenges before the ECP as it confronts this mammoth project. The experiment with new technology and an unfamiliar process during the previous election’s Results Transmission System ended badly, and major political parties continue to cry foul over the unexplained collapse. The country is still reeling from the effects of the controversial 2018 polls and rigging allegations. The EVM project is introducing layers of technology which involve steps that increase the possibility of error or technical faults. Software used for polling can also prove vulnerable to manipulation, therefore machines that make the final cut must be made to withstand interference. Nearly all elections in Pakistan’s history have been open to valid allegations of manipulation or interference. With a new process of voting being introduced in an electoral process already fraught with problems, the chances of more allegations and chaos will be amplified. Furthermore, the question of how EVMs will be introduced in areas where voter turnout is low will have to be dealt with. In parts of the country where there is little literacy and where electoral awareness is poor, will these machines discourage voters?

The ECP has its task cut out for it as it begins the exercise to deploy these machines. It is crucial for the government to respect the ECP’s position and give its sincere support to the institution — something it has thus far failed to do. The ruling party’s disdain for the ECP is no secret. It has shown scant regard for the commission that conducts the largest democratic exercise in the country. If the goal is to have free and fair elections, the government must demonstrate its commitment to this ideal and enable the ECP to deliver. Unfortunately, so far the government has displayed a high-handed approach to the process of making elections less controversial, angering both the ECP and the opposition parties. If it continues down this dangerous path, the next election will have devastating consequences, and as by-polls have shown, sow the seeds for further discord.

Published in Dawn, November 27th, 2021

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