Saturday December 04, 2021

Governance by diktat

October 16, 2021

Apart from staggering incompetence, if there is one thing that has defined this three-year-long term of the PTI government is its relentless obduracy to bulldoze its way through on matters that require consensual agreement among parliamentary forces.

Take the case of electronic voting machines (EVMs). Despite overwhelming empirical evidence to the contrary, the government is rigid in its misplaced belief that EVMs serve as a panacea for all our electoral ills. Undoubtedly, there are certain advantages to implementing technology in our electoral process, not the least of which is efficiency in the counting process; however, its costs far outweigh the benefits.

Susceptible to security flaws and vulnerabilities, EVMs have the potential to be tailored to miscount votes. As numerous experts have demonstrated over the years, EVMs are notoriously poor at preventing fraud. In some cases, they are significantly more vulnerable to rigging than paper-based voting. One of the most damning indictments against their use is the remarkable ease with which they can be hacked.

As demonstrated in 2019 at the world’s premier security conference, Defcon, each of the 100 voting machines certified for use in US elections was hacked. The worst part is that such malfunctioning may not even be detected if the hackers possess even a modicum of competence.

The considerable ease with which thousands of votes can be tampered with should put any notions of implementing this plan on a broad-scale to rest. One can easily envisage a scenario where losing parties blame the elite intelligence agencies of belligerent states for infiltrating voting systems. This is not a far-fetched idea, as witnessed from the Russian and Chinese campaigns during the 2020 US elections.

These reasons explain why many advanced states such as Germany, the Netherlands, Ireland and Finland have outlawed the use of EVMs, and also why the vast majority of electoral democracies simply stay away from them. India is one of the few countries that have successfully adopted EVMs at a national level, but even that came about after decades of experimentation starting with pilot projects in the 1980s.

To introduce them countrywide without taking requisite baby steps betrays, at best, a lack of appropriate knowledge and, at worst, reeks of mal-intent on the part of the government.

In Pakistan’s case, there are the added cost and training factors involved in deploying these machines on such a grand scale without any trials or pilot runs. Hundreds of thousands of voter identification machines, ballot units, and printers will be required at a cost running north of Rs100 billion. Given that there are less than two years to the next elections, we need to factor in the colossal task of producing thousands of machines a day.

On top of that, nearly half a million people will need to be trained to operate these machines and fix them in case of any technical faults. All these measures require superhuman efficiency given the timescale involved, which makes one wonder whether the government has even expended the effort of chalking out this revolutionary plan.

Above all, EVMs will not address the most serious issues plaguing Pakistan’s elections including pre- and post-election rigging, voter intimidation, coercion, abuse of state power and resources, media repression, horse-trading, and the pervasive control of certain state institutions. If the RTS system could mysteriously ‘break down’ in the middle of election results in 2018, what is stopping something similar from recurring in the case of EVMs?

So far, the protestations of the opposition, subject experts and the Election Commission have fallen on deaf ears. Opposition to the use of EVMs is also one of the major reasons behind the government being at loggerheads with the chief election commissioner (CEC). Typically, the Imran Khan-led cabinet has deflected attention from its own incompetence and bombast and turned it into an issue of personalities, accusing the CEC of being in cahoots with the opposition.

This tactic of personalisation of politics has become another ignominious hallmark of the government. Far from strengthening institutions as it promised in its manifesto, the regime has been concentrating its efforts on hand-picking chosen individuals for key positions. Where such attempts face hurdles, it rams its way ahead through presidential ordinances and diktat.

The controversy surrounding the NAB chairman is one such example. Over the years, the body has gained infamy for its selective accountability. The incumbent chairman has been criticised for solely focusing on cases of opposition leaders while letting government officials off the hook with barely a rap on the knuckles. Despite his evident partiality, the government is intent on bending the system to its will by extending his tenure through an ordinance.

The shocking decision of announcing negotiations with the TTP is another example of the government’s blatant disregard for parliamentary norms. It also demonstrates its appalling indifference to the scars of the tens of thousands who fell victim to the TTP and the families left to mourn and deal with their devastating losses.

It was not that far back in time when the state – on more than one occasion – attempted to appease the TTP, only to have its hand bitten. In the process, it allowed the organisation to regroup and expand its tentacles across the country. But history has never been the PTI’s, especially its leader’s, strongest suit. In a country where the prime minister is more interested in reconciling with those that murdered children, civilians and soldiers than have a dialogue with the opposition parties, there is no hope for any betterment.

The writer works as a development practitioner for a local consultancy.

Twitter: @ShahrukhNR