How can an educated, 21st century Pakistani oppose the Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs)? Why do our mainstream opposition parties, and even many opinion-makers, including journalists and civil society members, view the EVMs as an instrument to rig and steal the elections? What makes them all so afraid of modern technology?
The intensity of the opposition to the EVMs can be gauged from the words of the leader of the opposition in the National Assembly, Mian Shehbaz Sharif, who described them as “evil and vicious.” And he said this while addressing the all-important joint session of the Parliament on November 17, in which the government at break-neck speed passed 33 bills, including the landmark bill on electronic voting which will give expatriate Pakistanis the right to vote in the general elections.
The antagonism towards the EVMs implies that the opposition parties and their supporters in the media and civil society want to stick to the old, tried and tested method of voting, which has always generated controversies of massive electoral rigging and fraud. Public memory is not so short that they will forget that in every general election, including the last one held in 2018, the rich and powerful candidates and their gun-wielding supporters in many rural and urban constituencies stuffed ballot boxes with bogus votes and what’s more, did not even miss the chance to forcibly snatch these boxes if they failed to do the trick at polling stations. In the traditional voting method, even dead voters turned out to cast their votes! One can keep pointing out the loopholes in the old voting method, which many in Pakistan’s political and media establishment are determined to defend.
However, if the naysayers have any legitimate concerns regarding the EVMs and can give suggestions for improvement, these are lost in their outright opposition to this government initiative.
While the ruling party feels that the EVMs are being opposed for the sake of opposition, the opposition camp accuses the government of pushing this initiative with an authoritarian mindset. There is no middle-ground or space for rational discussion, given the bitter political polarisation in the country. As a result, this modern and futuristic initiative has been, increasingly and unnecessarily, made controversial.
In principle, the introduction of electronic voting should be lauded and supported. The EVMs and Results Transmission Systems would speed up result-gathering and reporting and scrap the long delays in vote-counting and the announcement of results. While the EVMs would help in curbing electoral rigging and fraud, in the long-run they would also help cut the administrative costs of general elections, including the cost of manpower.
In this day and age, when technology and artificial intelligence are making the once impossible, possible and pushing mankind to new, uncharted frontiers, the debate in Pakistan regarding whether Electronic Voting Machines are reliable or not, underline the sorry state of affairs in this country and exposes the intellectual bankruptcy of many among us.
This is the era of robotic or self-driven cars, trains and aircraft. Science and technology have revolutionised every aspect of our lives — from health to agriculture. Scientists and doctors are specialising and “learning more and more about less and less.” The genetic modifications are developing new species of plants and agricultural products, as well as looking to create Superman. But our opposition politicians and their supporters and, even an institution like the Election Commission of Pakistan, all are trying to find lame excuses for not allowing the use of EVMs instead of focusing on how to assimilate them into our electoral system.
Interestingly, neighbouring India introduced EVMs in a phased manner, starting way back in 1998, and gradually expanded their use across the country. Technology has made rapid advances since then, and to kick-start and implement the entire process of Electronic Voting in a much shorter time is now possible.
Instead of a straight no to the EVMs, the opposition parties should highlight the concerns they see in its implementation, which the government must address on a fast-track basis — if it is serious in facilitating non-controversial elections in 2023.
Now that the bill on EVMs has been passed and it is all set for execution, there is still time to reach a consensus on its practical implementation and remove and address all the opposition’s concerns and build confidence. The government must engage its critics sincerely on the issue and remove all misconceptions and doubts about the EVMs.
But the question is: will the vested interests in Pakistan’s old political establishment allow the opposition to make the right and futuristic choice and allow the government to do the needful? Examples from the past do not exactly allow us to be optimistic.