The Bangladesh Election Commission (BEC) has successfully prompted an unnecessary debate just four months ahead of the national election, and it seems to be cracking under the weight of it. The debate is about the use of Electronic Voting Machines (EVM) in the election now scheduled to be held in the last week of December. The proposal to amend the Representation of the People Order (RPO), specifically to use EVM, was decided on Thursday with a “note of dissent” by one commissioner, who also staged a walkout from the meeting. Despite speculations since last week when the EC began its deliberation on the issue, the decision is surprising, to say the least.
It was until July that the commission was insisting that there would be no amendment to the RPO before the election. In fact, BEC Secretary Helaluddin Ahmed told the press on July 14 that “an initiative to amend the RPO was taken earlier. But that's not happening anymore.” In a similar vein, Commissioner Rafiqul Islam, even after the EC started its latest round of deliberation on the issue of RPO amendment on August 26, hinted to the media that it was unlikely that any amendment could be proposed to the next session of the parliament slated for September 7; therefore, he felt that it was unlikely that there would be any change to the RPO. Yet, the commission has now decided to propose an amendment to the RPO to include the use of EVM in the next election. The “walkout” of Commissioner Mahbub Talukdar clearly reveals the growing schism within the commission.
An amendment to the RPO has been under consideration for quite some time as previous ECs had taken steps to update the RPO. The issue of the RPO amendment featured prominently in the dialogues organised by the commission with various political parties, members of civil society, journalists and others last year. Among the issues highlighted in these dialogues was a necessity to amend the RPO to allow the deployment of the Army during the election. Notwithstanding the differences among the political parties, particularly the objection of the ruling Awami League, the commission appeared to be reluctant to have the authority to deploy the Army. As for the amendments, a committee headed by one of the commissioners, Kabita Khanam, proposed 35 amendments in a draft submitted to the commission.
Commissioner Khanam informed the press in July that she was not aware of any progress except that “a consultant has been appointed to amend the RPO. He has got the proposed RPO of the EC.” It is against this background that the RPO amendment issue resurfaced in recent months, particularly after three City Corporation Elections held in July. Although the EC claimed “success” in holding “peaceful” elections, press reports have provided ample evidence to the contrary. Rigging by the ruling party activists, with the connivance of the local administration and the members of the law-enforcing agencies, was rampant; the EC turned a blind eye to these gross violations.
That the EC in its Thursday meeting decided to propose an amendment only to include the EVM, and shelve the remining 34 proposals, clearly shows that it was less of an effort to update the RPO and more to introduce the EVM. It should not be ignored that during the dialogues with the EC, of the 39 participating parties, 23 had expressed their opinions on the issue of EVM. Twelve parties, including the opposition BNP, were opposed to it while seven, including the ruling Awami League, were in favour of it. Three parties were in favour of introducing EVM on a limited scale as a pilot project and one party was said to favour the EVM subject upon fulfilling certain conditions. Despite this opposition from the majority parties, the plan to introduce the EVM—something that the ruling party is interested in—is quite telling at a time when the participation of opposition parties in the upcoming election remains uncertain and the confidence on the EC is very low, amid growing concerns among voters about whether the national election will be staged like the city corporation elections.
The CEC, however, tried to downplay the decision after the meeting, saying “the commission has not made any decision that EVMs must be used in the next election.” He continued, “If the necessary law is passed, and if everything remains in our favour, then we will go for using EVMs.” But other available information suggests that the EC has already made up its mind. For example, it has initiated the process of procuring 1.5 lakh EVMs at an estimated cost of Tk 3,821 crore. Interestingly, it is being done even before the Project Evaluation Committee's (PEC) approval and without any feasibility study. One may ask, if there is a chance that these machines may not be used, why then is such a huge amount of taxpayers' money being wasted? Why is the procurement being rushed? Will anybody bear the responsibility? If the situation in the banking, infrastructure and energy sectors of the past decade is any indication, no heads will roll, and there will be little accountability.
The technology which seems to have dazzled the EC is highly controversial around the globe. Even before the recent discussions on hacking that had plagued the 2016 US presidential election, EVM was considered by many countries as seriously flawed, extremely susceptible to manipulation, and very unreliable. There is ample data that point to the drawbacks of these machines and why many countries have abandoned them. Some have argued that all these faults can be fixed. We can go on with the debate for days, but in the context of Bangladesh, it is necessary to be cognizant of the absence of consensus among the political parties, skilled human resources of the EC, failsafe security arrangements, and acceptability among the voters. These issues are being ignored in the hasty decision of the EC.
The most important point, however, is something entirely different from the reliability of, and familiarly with, technology or securing human resources. There are serious concerns about the ability of the EC to hold a fair, acceptable, inclusive national election. Its abject failures in the recent past and unwillingness to accept the failings had nothing to do with the non-availability of a dazzling expensive technology, but to act as an independent body which is entrusted with the responsibility to protect a fundamental right of the citizens: voting. The pointless discussion that the EC has engendered through this decision on the EVM only distracts us from those fundamental issues. Unless that is what is intended here, the EC should bring an end to this adventure, and instead focus on how to restore confidence in the electoral system and the EC itself. The anxiety of the Bangladeshis surrounding the next election is about the political climate, and the capability of the EC—it is not about technology.
Ali Riaz is a distinguished professor of political science at the Illinois State University, USA.