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May 7, 2021

Voting matters

 
May 7, 2021

Pakistan badly needs a system that can ensure transparency for balloting, and change the perception frequently encountered among voters and political parties that the ballot is manipulated or changed in any fashion. The government has put out a package for this purpose and hopes to present it before parliament. The opposition has however shown extreme reluctance to even talk to the government on the matter, saying that it lacks the trust required to engage in such dialogue. This makes the process extremely difficult and far more controversial than it ever should be. The chief component of the electoral package is electronic voting machines or EVMs. There has been, over the years, much confusion over how these will function and what their purpose will be. There have been warnings that the machines could be hacked or otherwise used to miscount votes or add to the numbers that have been polled by voters who visit the polling station.

In an interview on Geo, President Arif Alvi has explained the situation in far more detail than before. Dr Alvi was one of the persons on a committee set up by the PTI in 2014 along with other parties, including the PML-N and JUI-F, to look into the possibility of electronic voting in Pakistan. The president has explained that the voting system proposed in Pakistan will in no way be linked to the internet, will require only a biometric test to ensure that the voter’s identity is not in doubt, and along with the electronic counting of ballots through the press of a button, a paper receipt will also be issued which will automatically fall into a ballot box or be placed in it by the voter. This would mean physical ballots can also be counted along with the electronic ballots put out by the machine. This record of the electronic voting would go within five minutes of a ballot being cast to the polling agents.

Pakistan does badly need voting reforms. There is no doubt about this given the accusations and counter-accusations we have seen in Daska, Karachi and other places. However, it is also true that voting machines have run into problems in other countries. While in Brazil and some other nations they appear to operate smoothly, in India where they have been used since 1985, there has lately been some concern over accuracy and the ability to properly ensure the correct vote is counted and there is no unfair play. The idea that the ballot machine would be demonstrated to the media and be placed before parliament may help allay the existing fears. But this is largely a matter of trust and faith. One of the crucial hurdles is the government’s own level of competence and willingness to lead such reform process through debate. So far, the PTI-led ruling alliance has demonstrated a callous disregard for parliamentary discussions without which you can’t negotiate any amendments. The degree of antagonism that currently exists between the ruling party and the opposition makes it more difficult for agreement to be reached on this sensitive matter. The government has to introduce some confidence-building measures with the opposition which is sceptical of the government’s intentions, keeping in mind its recent track record. We can only hope that at some point, there will be a situation in which talks can at least be held on the matter and the proposal discussed. The key factor must be unanimity or at least collective work by the parties and satisfaction among voters that their ballots are being fairly and transparently counted without any wrongdoing, at any point or at any level. The beauty of democracy lies in its potential to resolve problems by discussion and debate. If all major political parties keep rejecting each other’s proposals, democracy will be further emaciated. This withering away of already diminished democratic principles will not benefit any political party be it in the government or in the opposition.