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Can Use Of Electronic Voting Machines In Bangladesh Lead To Political Violence? – OpEd

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Elections are the center of democratic operations in developing countries. Bangladesh’s politics are becoming more violent in front of the upcoming election for the national parliament, which is disheartening. Awami League and BNP, the nation’s two major political parties, hold opposing views on several crucial issues, including the interim electoral government or caretaker government and electronic voting machines (EVM). Although communication or dialogue between the two parties is required to overcome this dilemma, a little ray of hope can be seen. Instead, as the election draws near, the gap between the two parties is widening, which is not at all desirable. This position is obviously troublesome for politics.

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However, EVM or Electronic Voting Machine is a vital tool for E-governance. It is a portable device used to conduct elections for the legislature, the parliament, and local government bodies like Upazila Parishad, Union Parishad or City Corporations. This tool is highly controversial all over the world.

In spite of objections from political parties, EVMs were first deployed in Bangladesh in 2010 at Chittagong City Corporation elections. However, the technical fault of EVM was detected in that center.

The Rajshahi City Corporation election, held on June 15, 2013, saw problems with EVMs. Due to those issues, the EC held a second election for the position of councilor for ward number 8. Moreover, in one center, the EVM malfunctioned during the Narayanganj City Corporation election. EVM has not been utilized in an election since 2013 because of these issues. At that time, 1,100 EVMs were bought for five crore tk. 

In June 2022, nevertheless, many had referred to the Cumilla City Corporation elections as a “trial run” for the new Election Commission’s ability to conduct elections, particularly in employing electronic voting machines (EVMs). Nevertheless, the results could have been considerably better. In addition to, there was a lot of debate about the usage of EVMs, which caused chaos during the announcement of the results.

The Election Commission has decided to conduct EVM voting in up to 150 constituencies in the upcoming national election. Though, in the Awami League central working committee meeting on May 7, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said, “EVM will be used in all 300 seats in the upcoming national election.”

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On the contrary, in February 2022, the new Chief Election Commissioner (CEC), Kazi Habibul Awal, said, “I cannot say what decision will be made regarding the EVM. We will discuss the pros and cons of EVM. Along with this, we will also look at the pros and cons of the ballot. A decision can be taken later because I myself do not understand EVM well.”

SHUJAN: Citizens for Good Governance claims that there is a severe lack of transparency around EVMs, particularly the audit cards used to collect election results, which are vulnerable to manipulation in the absence of a paper audit trail that can be verified by voters. The question of whether EVM software can be controlled is likewise unclear.

Additionally, there are concerns that the provision for EVM overwriting by election officials, which permits the presiding officer to use the ballot in cases where the EVM is unable to register fingerprints, could be utilized to rig elections.

On May 21, Election Commissioner Md. Anichur Rahman abruptly remarked, “Our EVM is the best machine in the world.” Our chief election commissioner offered a 10-million-dollar incentive for finding the EVM’s fault. 

“Machines are not completely safe, and it is not possible to manipulate in EVM,” said Dr. Zafar Iqbal. No machine can be trusted entirely, but EVMs cannot be controlled, according to Mohammad Kaykobad. Our citizens are perplexed by the two scholars’ assertions as those scholars sued that machines are unreliable while claiming that manipulation is impossible. 

It is known that a total of 31 countries in the world have used or practiced EVM. Among them, only four countries have adopted EVMs nationally, 11 locally, and five are currently piloting. Three countries have already eliminated using EVMs, and 11 countries have decided not to use EVMs after piloting the programme.

Developed countries have banned EVMs due to flaws and weaknesses related to security, accuracy, reliability and verification. Germany and Ireland have banned EVMs, England and France are adamant about not using EVMs, and after completing the pilot project on EVMs, Italy decided to go for a ballot paper. Further, the US has banned using EVMs without a paper trail. First of all, we must first comprehend why developed countries stopped using EVM. 

It will be impossible to get the time and resources to undertake a forensic investigation on such a large number of cards to assure they are not manipulated since the EC has opted to utilize EVM in 150 constituencies, which will need the usage of around 5 lakh audit cards. On What scientific justification did the EC use EVMs, whereas developed nations do not? And how does it respond to the concerns voiced over its independence?

Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB) has advised the EC to decide whether to use an EVM only after ensuring it is technically faultless. Kazi Habibul Awal, the chief election commissioner (CEC), stated that despite extensive analysis, the commission had not found any forgery or flaws in the electronic voting machines (EVM). “We need to develop plans to implement EVM. However, if we are unable to implement it, we will have to use ballots,” he added.  

Currently, there is no political accord between the two major political parties, and they have reached a situation of increasing violence. BNP and Awami League hold contradictory positions on the EVM issue. Because of the possibility of forgery, BNP and other opposition parties have opposed the use of EVMs. But EC did not consider BNP’s anti-EVM stance because they did not engage in dialogue. Rather, preparations are being made to purchase EVMs for the forthcoming election. 

The Election Commission is going to undertake a potential project of 8 thousand crore taka for the purchase and maintenance of EVMs. 200,000 new machines are being purchased. An Election Commissioner said that if the project is implemented, EVM will be used for voting in 150 constituencies. If not, at least 70 to 80 seats will be voted on EVMs as per the current capacity. 

One thing is clear that the EVM experience in Bangladesh is not satisfactory. The Election Commission has not had a significant amount of success in areas where EVMs have been used earlier on a smaller scale. While EVMs have not been successful on a small scale, the question remains how much success will they bring in a big platform like national elections? And since EVM is a new technology in the election of Bangladesh, how can the EC guarantee that it can be used by people from all walks of life, including educated, less educated, and illiterate? 

Opposition parties, civil society and prominent people are also skeptical about the success of EVMs. In that case, is there any guarantee whether they will accept the election results using EVM? Political violence has recently increased across the country, particularly over the Bhola and Narayanganj issues, where three BNP workers were reportedly killed in clashes with the police. Almost every day, there are reports of clashes between police and Awami League against BNP activists in different parts of the country, where the number of casualties is increasing every day. It can be said that both parties are in a kind of fighting position. 

In such a situation, it can be assumed that despite the objections of other opposition parties, including BNP, if the EC conducts the election through EVM, then they will not accept the election results. This could further destabilize the political situation across the country, and it would fuel the political violence among parties. That is why it is very important to bring the opposition parties to dialogue on the EVM issue. Further, the government needs to rethink using EVM in the next election.

Authors:

  • Md. Obaidullah, Research Assistant, Centre for Advanced Social Research, Dhaka
  • Md. Showkat Raihan, Pursuing postgraduate in Public Administration, University of Barishal, Bangladesh.

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