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February 17, 2020

PM Imran’s election reforms proposals seem non-implementable

Islamabad

February 17, 2020

Islamabad : Three election reforms Prime Minister Imran Khan has talked about to introduce will remain mere an announcement unless they will be approved by Parliament, including the opposition-dominated Senate.

Two of these reforms--electronic voting and biometric verification--in the past attracted comprehensive discussions among public circles and deliberations by the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP), but they were universally discarded for different reasons.

Political parties have been opposed to the e-voting and biometric system fearing that these modes are subject to easy manipulation as was the case with the notorious RTS (result transmission/management system), which, put in place in the 2018 general elections, created a mess because of its utter collapse when it should have functioned. It made the entire electoral exercise controversial and questionable, giving rise to a political storm.

In addition, an ECP committee concluded a few years back that the cost of the electronic voting machines (EVMs) is very prohibitive, almost double, compared to the paper balloting.

Imran Khan’s third proposal--election of senators through show of hands instead of secret balloting--has the attraction for the opposition parties to extend their support because they were severely bitten by the secret vote during voting on their no-confidence motion against Senate Chairman Sadiq Sanjrani in August last year.

Fraud has always been committed during the election of the senators when the wealthy candidates engage in the reckless vote buying. In the last Senate election, this kind of scam showed its tentacles especially in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) to the bewilderment of some parliamentary parties, which lost votes.

It is obvious that the ruling coalition led by the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) is in no position to get any poll reforms passed from parliament because of its low numerical strength in the Senate. A similar fate awaits any amendments based on the prime minister’s proposals in the Elections Act, 2017.

After lengthy consultations during the tenure of the Nawaz Sharif government, the Elections Act was unanimously passed. Since long, there is a total disconnection between the government and the opposition parties on the legislative agenda. The Elections Act has turned out to be an excellent document, but still it contained lethal flaws like providing for the use of the RTS. However, the law refrained from allowing the electronic voting and the use of EVMs after protracted discussions.

Section 103 of the Elections Act says that the ECP may conduct pilot projects for utilisation of EVMs and biometric verification system in bye-elections in addition to the existing manual procedures for voter authentication, casting and counting of votes to assess the technical efficacy, secrecy, security and financial feasibility of the electronic voting machines and biometric verification system and shall share the results with the government, which shall lay the report before Parliament.

Back in 2010 in its final report and recommendations, an ECP committee on the use of EVMs formed concluded that the initial one-time procurement cost of EVMs is much higher compared to the cost of the paper balloting system. Even if the initial procurement cost is evenly distributed over the life cycle of the product (set to 20 years), the cost of the electronic voting and counting system remains high.

However, it is important to note that the recurring costs associated with EVMs are significantly less than the paper balloting system. Thus, it is important to keep in mind the life cycle of the EVMs and the expected number of general and local government elections to be conducted during this period.

The Working Group concluded that the EVMs will prove to be the more expensive option, almost double the cost of paper balloting, even after considering the expected life spans of the EVMs (20 years). When deciding which system to use, this cost comparison should not, however, be the sole deciding factor. Rather the tangible and intangible benefits associated with the paper balloting system and EVMs should be considered carefully. A passionate cost-benefit analysis is extremely significant for a developing country like Pakistan, since the adoption of new technology will require significant resources and investment.

The ECP had introduced Internet voting for overseas Pakistan in the last parliamentary polls on the Supreme Court’s direction. A Senate committee was told last year that the electronic voting system is not appropriate for countries such as Pakistan as it is considered doubtful around the world and creates problems and cast doubt on electoral results.