The history of Pakistan’s elections is as bad as our elites are. If someone believes that good governance will sprout from contaminated elections, he is a fool of the highest order. Elections cannot be examined in isolation. Therefore, the context is vital to understanding the debate on electoral reforms, including Electronic Voting Machines (EVM).
This short essay is an attempt to explore the reasons stated by various political leaders on the use of technology and the role of the Election Commission (ECP) in the light of its own Strategic Plan 2019-23 and the Elections Act 2017. The essay will also discuss the scale of illegalities and irregularities committed by contesting parties and polling staff and to what extent the use of technology will be helpful to end rigging.
For the last few months, the issue of EVM has overwhelmed almost all TV talk shows and political debates. It has not only deepened polarization between the ruling party and opposition, but it has also divided the civil society activists. Despite watching the talk shows, a large majority of people appear to be extremely confused. Thanks to the anchors.
Instead of inviting experts, they let the politicians spread baseless opinions without further probing. And most people appear to reproduce what they watch. As a result, there exists a massive confusion even amongst NGOs’ leaders regarding the use of EVM. Here is a summary of the conversations I had with more than 300 representatives of about 100 plus NGOs in the last three months.
During that period, we held several training and brainstorming workshops for the formation of Coalition38 (named after article 38 of our constitution). It will be a part of 19 other networks of Free and Fair Election Network (FAFEN). While we talked about the internal election rules of FAFEN, we also had an interesting debate on EVM. I found the participants more interested in the EVM issue than in their own elections.
Interestingly, most of their questions and comments were like the ECP’s and the opposition’s. I will discuss them later in my article. As said above, the use of EVM or, for that matter, the existing paper ballot cannot be examined in isolation. Power is obtained through elections, but that is a half-truth. The use of money and muscle power largely determine the outcome of every election.
Just ask any voter. Vote-buying, using coercive methods, offering benefits, and influencing state officials are rampant in every poll. No one, including EVM, can undo it if power remains in few hands. In my view, therefore, the question of power must be addressed if we are serious about having credible elections.
Keeping that in mind, we decided to adopt a holistic approach to determine our role right at the outset. Our constitution provides us enough ground in this regard. For instance, Article 3 obligates the State to ‘eliminate all forms of exploitation.’ Elections are the best times to record the ugliest forms of political exploitation.
Men coerce their women; biradri elders their communities; employers their employees, and religious/ spiritual leaders their followers. Article 38 of our constitution vows to end monopolies ‘by preventing the concentration of wealth and means of production and distribution in the hands of a few.’ Also, we discussed Article 29 that obligates the President and provincial governors to their governments to present (each year) the progress on the “Principles of Policy” in their respective Assemblies.
Almost half a century on, these promises remain a distant dream. We as a group know very well that EVM cannot undo that. But election observation exercises create opportunities to pressure the State to act against the perpetrators of electoral exploitation. Also, since technology is most likely to reduce human involvement in most polling, counting, and result dissemination stages, it is highly likely to curb the interference of relatively more powerful parties and candidates.
Just recall polls in Karachi and Jhang when armed groups controlled these cities. The moment they lost muscle power – losses replaced the victories. Sadly, this happened because of the selective implementation of laws. In the training workshops, we noted how conveniently successive (civilian and military) governments orchestrated selective implementation of our constitution and laws.
Isn’t it interesting that the laws whose implementation would harm the monopoly of the super-rich or benefit the poor even slightly are being ignored, and the laws whose adherence would further enrich the super-rich are implemented timely and keenly? Just think, why local government elections have always been delayed while general elections take place regularly.
The selective implementation of the sections of the Elections Act 2017 is another stark example. For instance, conducting pilot projects of EVM and I-voting in bye-elections is an integral part of the act. The Supreme Court categorically directed ECP to pilot I-voting, and above all, ECP had made a categorical commitment to conduct more pilot projects of EVM and I-voting under Pillar 8 of the ECP’s Strategic Plan 2019-23.
The ECP organized more than 50 bye-elections and Cantonment Board elections but did not bother to pilot technology as rigorously as promised. Had it piloted technologies in all these elections, we would have an informed debate and improved electoral technologies by now. Also, we would not have such a deep political polarisation and profound confusion in public.
Undoubtedly, our state officials often selectively neglect/ implement rules and procedures, but we do not expect selective behavior from ECP as the quality of democracy depends on its efficiency and neutrality. Therefore, it is highly mindboggling why ECP did not pilot the EVM in bye-elections. The Coalition38 participants wanted to solve this puzzle.
I said I did not know. Ask the ECP or its supporters. But I shared the statement of Peoples’ Party stalwart Mr. Aitzaz Ahsan. I quote, “PMLN had registered 10,000 – 12,000 fake votes in each constituency, and with the use of EVM, the party would lose heavily because fake voters would not be able to vote.” His opinion contradicts the position of his own party. His statement seems to prove my thesis that there has always been some politics behind selective neglect.
One participant, after the meeting, wanted to know why the opposition parties were outrightly opposed to the use of EVM and why they have openly supported the ECP. He even mentioned a meeting of some opposition leaders with the CEC, and why would they issue a statement in favor of ECP? Sadly, these examples have damaged the repute of the ECP. Perhaps because of some ministers’ stupidity.
Paper ballot versus EVM
The paper ballot comes with hundreds of other items like stamps, pads, bags, envelopes of various sizes, the printing of material, papers of various sizes, etc. We all know how procurement creates vested interest within organizations. EVM procurement is most likely to reduce to the same petty level. But it has the potential to have big kickback.
However, it will not be easy to hide. The readers could draw their own conclusion. By now, the participants have started joining the dots. Like the Article of Principles, the use of EVM and I-voting for overseas Pakistanis will have a differential impact on political parties. PTI knows it will gain if EVM and I-Voting for overseas citizens are used. Other parties know very well that their support amongst overseas Pakistanis is likely to be far less than PTI.
Therefore, why would they accept reforms which would cause harm to them? And should an observation group be bothered about politics? Of course not. Relevant laws, best practices, and credible data must determine civil society’s position. Consider Table 1. EVM will take over 13 of the 20 steps of the paper ballot method. EVM cannot make any impact on the rest of the seven steps. Table 1 also reveals that most illegalities and irregularities take place during the counting phase.
And counting process takes long hours (often the whole night), which paves the way for suspicion and sometimes leads to violence. This had become a new norm in previous elections. Most likely, EVM (depending on its technology) will end the nerve-wracking wait. The machine is most likely to produce results in seconds and quick dissemination of results.
The EVM shown to us consists of three parts, including the printer, which will print the ballot, a voter will check the candidate symbol, and then drop in the box. So, there will be a machine count as well as paper. Both must tally, and if there is a difference, it will be resolved according to law/rules.
However, all that depends on rigorous training of polling staff and quality of technology. One thing is certain, if quality EVM and I-voting are used professionally, the expertise of ‘talented’ manipulators will come to an end. According to the FAFEN observation report, electoral illegalities and irregularities took place at 21,766 (38 percent) of the 57,832 polling stations (PSs) observed PSs.
About 29 percent PSs registered up to 10 irregularities per PS, three percent had 11 to 20 irregularities per PS, while less than one percent registered 91 to 100 and more than 100 irregularities per PS. See Table 2. Now consider this. According to ECP data, 58 MPs won by less than 1,000 votes, 56 by less than 2,000, and 44 by less than 3000 votes. Pakistan’s electoral system is based on the First-Past-the-Post method.
Under this system, a candidate can win or lose by one vote. Two aspects must be kept in mind: a large majority of candidates don’t have the capacity to manipulate an election in all polling areas of his constituency, and secondly, as the elections have become highly competitive in most constituencies, large scale rigging is no more possible. This does not mean that rigging has ended. It is very much there.
Analyses of elections data show that even powerful candidates can only influence polling staff maximum at 40-50 polling stations, and that way, he could enhance chances of his success. Moreover, polling staff can only cast a small number of fake votes. Since most powerful candidates adopt similar dirty tactics to win an election, they create a kind of ‘rigging equilibrium.’ See Table 2.
According to FAFEN’s election observation report 2013, on average, five times more violations took place during the counting than the casting of votes in each constituency. For instance, in almost every constituency at 10 to 15 polling stations, non-stamped ballots were not votes were made part of the count.
Three factors generally determine the outcome of elections – 1. popularity of his/ her party; 2. the muscle power (ability to use corrupt practices like rigging, support of the administration, etc.); and 3. support of local factional leaders. The use of EVM is likely to eliminate the second factor to a large extent. And since most of the rigging takes place at the counting stage, the EVM use will be most likely to eliminate that.
The above election datasets refute most of the infamous 37 rejection points of ECP. Read editorials of some English dailies of 9 and 10 September. I quote here a line from the Express Tribune editorial – ‘some of the 37 complaints [of ECP] looked more like attempts to pad the report.’ Dawn appears to agree. It said ‘the commission also mentioned a number of election-related problems that EVMs will do nothing to address.
They include low voter turnout, misuse of state authority, election fraud, ballot stuffing, vote buying, dishonest polling staff, misuse of state resources, etc. Significantly, some of these problems fall in the category of pre-poll rigging, which queers the pitch long before anyone casts a vote.’
The Express Tribune, too, noted that ‘none of these has anything to do with EVMs.’ Under Article 218 (3) of the Constitution, ECP must conduct elections honestly, fairly, and justly. By having these powers, ECP should have made politicians agree on the use of EVM and I-voting. Sadly, it did not take the initiative, and the ruling party readily jumped into the void. It reminds me of the following.
Analysis of Indian elections
In May 2004, I took a three-member team of PATTAN to India. Our purpose was to study the Indian election. We were allowed to visit various cities to watch the election campaign. On the polling day, we were facilitated to view polling too.
Though some candidates and voters reported misuse of money, including vote-buying and muscle power, we were impressed to see strict compliance of the code of conduct and illiterate people using EVM with confidence. We envied the trust and confidence that political class and public had in the Election Commission of India and the technology that was being used.
Two days after the announcement of nationwide results and despite a tight schedule, Mr. T. S. Krishnamurthy, then the Chief Election Commissioner, welcomed us graciously. After our brief meeting with the chief, Mr. Jah, Deputy CEC, showed us working of the EVM and presented us a CD which had complete data of the recent and analyses of previous elections.
It was indeed an impressive demonstration of ECI’s competence. We also met former CEC Mr. S.M. Gill at his home. He candidly explained to us how political consensus was built in India for the use of EVM. In short, according to him, it was the ECI efforts that brought the political parties to a consensus. Back home.
My ECP did not initiate any sustained process despite having enhanced powers, enactment of laws, verdicts of the Supreme Court, and a favorable environment for improving the electoral system, including the use of EVM. Vacuum is always a short-lived phenomenon. The PTI government’s move to fill the void through electoral reforms was the need of the hour, but it was a mindless bid.
On the other hand, experienced and brilliant opposition got a golden opportunity to appease the ECP and damage the government standing on EVM. As a result, the consensus on EVM and I-voting was highly politicized. It was further polarized when some ministers used threatening language against the ECP.
Also, there is an urgent need to end the monopoly of about 200 dynasties over our legislative bodies. Almost the same families control our corporate world. This goes against the spirit of our constitution. Just read Article 38 (prevent means of production and distribution of wealth in few hands). Moreover, nearly 40 percent of our parliament consists of indirectly selected legislators.
Everyone knows most of the parties lack internal democracy. Almost every office bearer of every big party seemingly a nominee (crony) of someone. These are some of the ravaging political torrents that have blurred our sanity and sense of balance. The opposition could have made it part of its reform package. Who bothers! Elites either reform the system or build internal consensus for sustaining their perpetuity in power.
Since criminal gangs have joined our elites, and as long as they are not under any immediate threat from any movement of marginalized people or the intelligentsia, they will not offer any meaningful reforms soon. Most likely, they will continue fighting each other.
However, as more writers and scholars are highlighting issues like poverty, inequality, and corruption, and greed of the elite, which may ultimately build an accumulative pressure, therefore, civil society, instead of taking a partisan position on EVM, use resources strategically for meaningful social, political, and electoral reforms. For instance, the end of socio-political and economic monopolies and inequalities are prerequisites for achieving elections, democracy, and governance.
So, what is to be done? EVM should be piloted repeatedly before the next election, amend relevant sections of the law and rules, and use it in randomly selected polling booths of each constituency. Also, overseas citizens must not be disenfranchised from voting as it is ethically and constitutionally wrong. Our elites must reform themselves before someone else reform them.
Tailpiece: Mr. Salman Shabbir residing in Australia, shared with me the hidden ECP report on EVM, which was produced in November 2017. He has used the RTI Act to get the report. Here is an interesting excerpt from the report: “it would be more appropriate and wise to keep conducting multiple pilot projects in urban as well as in rural areas of the country by engaging all voters of that constituency to make the system robust, speedy, reliable and accurate. The ECP is technology progressive organisation.”
The author is a founding member and former head of FAFEN and is associated with PATTAN organization since 1992.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.