With slightly over a month left for Bangladesh to go to the polls, a former election commissioner of that country has questioned “the undue haste” on the part of the poll panel’s controversial decision to press ahead with the use of an “unknown number” of electronic voting machines (EVMs) in the elections to the Jatiya Sangsad (National Assembly).
What has befuddled the opposition parties and political analysts alike in Bangladesh is the Election Commission’s “complete silence” on the precise number of EVMs that will be used on December 30, the day of polling. A recent report in the BBC highlighted the challenges that the newly-acquired EVMs will likely pose when they are deployed for use on polling day. Besides, the report raised questions that the Bangladesh poll panel would be faced with, especially in respect of the EVMs’ reliability and confidence among the country’s voters.
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Speaking to the South Asian Monitor over the phone, a former election commissioner of Bangladesh, Brigadier General (retd) M Sakhawat Hossain said that he had “categorically recommended to the three-member poll panel that considering the doubts and questions that have cropped among the opposition parties as well as the people about the use of EVMs this time, the machines should be used at some later time, in elections to local bodies or at best in some bypolls”.
Sakhawat Hossain, who was one of three election commissioners between 2007 and 2012, said that some of the EVMs which he had the occasion to observe functioning “looked to be technologically advanced and fine, but—and it is a big but—the vast majority of the general voters has neither seen them nor has the Election Commission taken any steps to launch awareness campaigns, especially in Bangladesh’s rural areas. No guarantees that the EVMs will function without glitches have been placed”.
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The former poll panel member expressed fears that the untested EVMs “could malfunction” and this would contribute to the “existing trust deficit in the Election Commission”. Hossain said he has so far persistently impressed upon the EC “to not rush in with the EVMs”. “The election commissioners told me that some EVMs were tried out during elections to the municipalities and local bodies. But I cautioned them that this time they have a national election in hand. If people are not given sufficient doses of aware campaigns, how do you expect the people to master the machines on polling day? And now there is hardly any time left,” Hossain said.
Besides Hossain, multiple Bangladeshi sources told the South Asian Monitor that the efficacy of the EVMs and their deployment are already under a cloud since the elections will be held without a poll-time caretaker government in place. Apart from this, the ruling Awami League has refused to budge on dissolving parliament to ensure a level playing field for all the contesting parties and candidates. “The polls are shaping up to be complicated and it will get further tangled in all kinds of controversies in the days to come. The cloud over EVM use will only complicate issues further,” Hossain said.
Reports in a section of the Bangladeshi media and inquiries by the South Asian Monitor indicate that various components of the EVMs have been imported from companies in China and Hong Kong. These parts, Hossain explained, would be “assembled into fully functional machines” at the army-controlled-and-administered Bangladesh Machine Tools Factory (BMTF).
“The issue over importing EVMs from two state-controlled companies in India—Electronic Corporation of India Ltd and Bharat Electronic Ltd—was discussed way back when I was an EC member. But this proposal was junked on the ground that using Indian-made EVMs would raise a political storm. At the time, it was believed that allegations would be made on Indian-made EVMs being amenable to manipulation, which Bangladesh’s voters would never accept,” Hossain disclosed.
These apprehensions are tied up with several instances of supposedly ‘malfunctioning’ EVMs, used during a few previous assembly elections in India, throwing up “favourable” outcomes for the BJP. In elections to the Uttar Pradesh assembly, for example, there were several cases in which voters complained that even when they pressed the button for other political parties, ballots would be shown cast for the BJP.
Speaking to the South Asian Monitor, a former Indian election commissioner SY Qureshi expressed apprehensions over why the Bangladesh Election Commission has so far not declared the number of EVMs and withholding information on number of polling stations that they will be used in. “India too imports the chips for the EVMs from companies in the US and Japan. As for the EVM parts that will be assembled in Bangladesh, much will depend on the quality of the imported components,” Qureshi, who has previously defended the view that the Indian EVMs cannot be manipulated, said.
On his part, Hossain said that the BMTF-assembled EVMs will not have the parallel VVPAT (voter verifiable paper audit trail) technology which is intended an independent verification system for the machines designed to allow voters to verify that their votes were cast correctly. The VVPAT system also helps detect suspected election fraud or malfunction and is a means to audit the stored electronic results.
“There was some discussion earlier on the use of VVPAT and one of Bangladesh’s foremost scientists, Dr Jamilur Reza Chowdhury, had sought the use of this technology. But the Bangladesh Election Commission has categorically dismissed the use of VVPAT. This will leave questions in the minds of voters in the event the results are challenged,” Hossain said, adding that “people are smelling a rat”.
Questioning the BEC’s “declaration of jihad in favour of the EVMs”, Hossain said he has serious misgivings about the ruling Awami League’s decision “not to take into confidence all stakeholders, including the other political parties” for the machines whose “price is too much”. According to Hossain, “there is lack of transparency”.
While pointing out that election commission staff will themselves need training on handling the EVMs, for which there is “hardly any time left”, Hossain expressed concern that the Bangladesh army will be tasked to operate the voting machines on polling day. “Such a step will be questioned by the international community,” he said.