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EDITORIAL: Political polarisation continues to consume electoral reform effort by the government. The ruling PTI has been pushing for the introduction of electronic voting machines (EVMs) in the next general elections. The opposition parties have refused to accept the proposal claiming the machine would be susceptible to manipulation. In a document submitted to the Senate Standing Committee on Parliamentary Affairs on Tuesday, the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) also raised as many as 37 objections to the reform proposals, with the warning that EVMs are prone to tampering with, and that "it is nearly impossible to ensure that every machine is honest." According to the electoral authority, the EVMs could cause some other issues as well, such as lack of voter secrecy, lack of capacity at various levels, and ensuring security in the chain of custody of the machines at rest and during transportation. Furthermore, said the ECP, there could be no evidence available in case of an election dispute.

The government remains insistent, however, ongoing ahead with its plan. Minister for Science and Technology Shibli Faraz whose ministry has been involved in preparing the EVMs held a presser last Wednesday to explain that out of the 37 objections raised by the ECP 27 were not about the machines but its own capacity, and that the 10 EVM-related issues had already been addressed. But on Friday, Railways Minister Azam Swati made an astoundingly unwarranted contribution to the Senate Standing Committee on Parliamentary Affairs' deliberations on the issue. Denouncing the ECP in the grossest of terms, he accused it of receiving "bribes and always rigging polls", adding that such institutions should be "set ablaze". At that the ECP team walked out of the meeting in protest. If that was not bad enough, three ministers, led by Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry, went on to launch a blistering attack on the electoral body calling it "opposition's headquarters", alleging that the Chief Election Commissioner was acting as a " mouthpiece" of the opposition, and that he had played politics by raising "stupid" objections to EVMs. To say the least, such gratuitous, unsubstantiated attacks on the ECP, a constitutional body, do no service to the ruling party or to the cause of democracy in the country. Minister Faraz also announced that legislative process for the EVM introduction and for overseas Pakistanis voting -- another bone of contention since they are also to vote via modern technology, the internet -would be completed this month, and that everybody would be bound to obey the law once enacted. According to Prime Minister's Adviser on Parliamentary Affairs Babar Awan, the reform bill will be presented in the upcoming National Assembly session. The government has the numbers for its passage; but considering the level of resistance, is it worth the effort?

Interestingly, the opposition parties are not entirely averse to the use of technology at some other time; in fact, some of them have been contending that the problem is with the haste with which the government is acting, suggesting it be employed as a pilot project in Islamabad. For its part, the government deserves appreciation for taking the initiative to reform the electoral process. That though must not give way to usual controversies that follow every election. It is imperative therefore for the ruling party to try and create consensus among all principal political players. It is good to note that while participating in the Senate committee discussions even though Minister of State for Parliamentary Affairs Ali Muhammad Khan termed the ECP document a "murder FIR" against the EVM, he also offered a compromise solution, saying the existing voting system could be continued with one change: that a voter slip reading machine be used for vote count. The proposal was readily accepted by the committee. This means notwithstanding the government's seemingly uncompromising stance it is open to holding the next general election under the old system. That is a wise course for it to take.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2021


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