What is especially disturbing is that the election commission appears to have recently started an initiative to promote the use of the Electronic Voting Machine or EVM. We were hopeful when the Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) said the commission would discuss the issue of using the EVM with an open mind and take the decision about its future use based on political consensus. But before doing that, the election commission has taken the decision to hold the Cumilla city corporation elections with EVM. We fail to understand why this has been done.

We had hoped that the commission, as a neutral jury, would take the decision on the use of EVM after gathering relevant information and evidence, and having serious and behind the scene discussions with experts and other relevant stakeholders. But two commissioners have already given their verdict in favour of EVM. Recently the commissioner Anisur Rahman certified the present EVM as the world’s best machine. According to commissioner Ahsan Habib Khan, the problem is not with the EVM, it is with the ‘robbers’ in the polling centres. Clearly, these two commissioners have made up their mind about the EVM before gathering and evaluating the evidence.

There was a time in our history when it was possible to have credible elections with the use of the ordinary ballot boxes, held under the home ministry. But now credible elections are not possible even with transparent ballot boxes or with electronic machines because of the credibility, or lack of it, of the persons appointed to the commission

We also hoped that the commission would look into the allegations that had arisen with the use of the EVM and determine the reasons behind those allegations. For example, in the last parliament election, where the votes were cast with paper ballots, the turnout rate was 80.80 per cent. On the other hand, in the six seats where the EVM was used, the turnout rate was 51.42 per cent. In one seat, only 45.26 per cent of the votes were cast with EVM. So, does the use of EVM suppress vote casting? The Narayanganj mayor, Selina Hayat Ivy, made such allegations. If that actually happens, then it would be most unwise to use the EVM in the future. Also, in the last national election the returning officers were given the authority to overwrite up to 25 per cent of the votes where the EVM was used, which meant that the returning officers had the opportunity to cast 25 per cent of the votes in favour of the candidates of their choice. This matter definitely calls for inquiry.

In addition to this, in the Chittagong city corporation elections, the election results were declared at least twice, which is a clear indication of digital manipulation. Even in the Narayanganj city corporation election, which most observers viewed as fair, Taimur Alam Khandakar complained of digital manipulations. This too requires to be investigated. However, it will not be possible to recount votes of Narayanganj city corporation elections as the EVMs used there do not have the Voter Verification Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT). And that was why our foremost technology expert, the late Jamilur Reza Chowdhury, as head of the technical advisory committee formed by the election commission, had refused to sign the recommendation to purchase the present EVM. The Indian Supreme Court, incidentally, issued directives requiring the election commission there to include the VVPAT in their EVMs.

It was most disappointing that the election commission, rather than taking the opinions of experts privately, arranged a media event on 25 May with a number of experts. Speaking at the event, Professor Zafar Iqbal declared the present EVM as an excellent machine. Yet during the dialogue in March he had termed the technology of this EVM to be of a ‘very low level’. Professor Kaikobad said that the machine would not be one hundred per cent reliable. His observation was justified because all equipment run on software can be manipulated in various ways with the use of technology. It is the proverbial “men behind the machine” – the reliability of the people behind the machines that is most important. For example, there was a time in our history when it was possible to have credible elections with the use of the ordinary ballot boxes, held under the home ministry. But now credible elections are not possible even with transparent ballot boxes or with electronic machines because of the credibility, or lack of it, of the persons appointed to the commission.

Let us now come to the Cumilla city corporation polls which are almost certain to be fair. After all, this will benefit the government. But here too the election commission has certain important things to do. Here too the mayor and councilor candidates have submitted their affidavits containing important information along with their nomination papers. The objective behind submitting these affidavits is to empower the voters with information so that they can choose the right candidates in the polling booths. However, if the candidates hide information or provide false information, then the voters will be misled rather than empowered. According to the Indian Supreme Court, such elections will be neither fair nor neutral. That is why if the affidavits contain false information, the candidate’s candidature may be cancelled, and if elected, even the election may be declared illegal. So it is the responsibility of the election commission to scrutinise the affidavits submitted by the candidates. We had asked the Awal Commission to scrutinise the affidavits, but received no positive response. The past commission also did not do so either.

In past elections, we have seen even city corporation contractors contested in the elections, though legally they cannot do so. We had requested that the commission look into the matter. Like the past commission, the Awal commission too completely ignored our request. According to our Supreme Court, the commission's arm is very long and it has the inherent power even to “add to the statutory rules” for the sake of fair elections.

The election commission could have taken certain bold measures in other areas too to win the people’s confidence. The RPO bars the registered political parties from having the provisions of affiliated or associated bodies in their constitutions. In other words, it is unlawful for any registered party to have affiliated or associated bodies. The objective of this was to bring an end to the mayhem caused by the student wings of political parties which have made our educational institutions dens of criminal activities, pushing our educational system to the brink of destruction.

The political parties have cleverly dropped the provision for affiliated and associated bodies from their constitutions, but are still using the muscle power of these so-called “brotherly” organisations, allowing them to continue with their unethical and criminals activities unabated. The political parties have also been continuing with their foreign branches, which is also unlawful for the registered parties. This means the election commission is not strict even in enforcing the RPO, which is the main election law. The commission is also not taking any action against their own officials who, in the past, pocketed public funds allocated for training or who indulged in partisan behavior during past elections. It appears that the election commission is indulging in “business as usual” behavior which creates serious doubts as to whether this will help the commission to ever win the trust of the people.

* Badiul Alam Majumdar is the secretary of Shushashoner Jonno Nagorik (SHUJAN).

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