Tuesday 4 February 2020

Bangladesh: What does the all-EVM Dhaka election prove?

The Dhaka city corporation election could have been a test for at least two things: to test out the electronic voting machines are completely immune to rigging in contrast to the opposition’s claims, and, to prove that the recent survey of IRI that claimed that the AL-led government is very popular and people are satisfied with their performance, amid social media criticism on the validity of the survey.

After examining the news of all major news agencies, talking to the voters in person and participating in the process myself, here is what I found.

Dysfunctional and useless

Though EVM was seen as an answer to stop vote-rigging by the chief of the election, it fell flat during the action. The most ‘obvious’ few things like the mismatch of fingerprints, machines going out of order etc. were prevalent. While some less obvious things that become obvious during the poll has made it quite clear that the EVM is certainly not immune to rigging.

There are three loopholes apart from technical errors in this all-EVM voting system.

First of all, to cast a vote in EVM, the following things need to be done: proving identity by entering fingerprint, signing beside the details printed on a paper, getting a finger marked as the proof of voting. This entire process, from entering the fingerprint to marking the finger, takes at least three to four minutes. Now, since the voting device is activated during this crucial few minutes, anyone can enter into the secret room where the machines are kept and cast one’s vote. Plus, as the voter got his finger marked, he cannot even prove that he was barred from voting.

Secondly, whenever a voter presses the button and confirms the vote, the symbol takes the entire screen to ensure that the vote has been cast, but it remains on the screen till the next voter arrives. So apparently, the secrecy of one’s vote is no more preserved and a voter can be easily tracked. The voter standing in the queue saw the vote of the previous voter, and is quite sure that the voter who entered next saw his vote.

Finally, because the commission itself knows the prevalence of fingerprint mismatches, EVM allows a polling official in the room to intervene and use his/her fingerprint to allow the voter to vote after confirming the voter’s identity from his national ID. In an election atmosphere where centre and booths are heavily manned by ruling party activists, possible misuse of polling official’s fingerprint in favour of their favourites can be rife.

If we look into the details of the news reports, all these factors played a role in this most recent poll.

Allegations of voting by someone else after entering the fingerprint, forcing voters to vote for ruling party candidates from inside the secret room were backed by substantial evidence including photographs and videos.

On the other hand, Beating up, threatening voters, even cancelling votes when ruling party men identified voters voting against their favourite emerged from the voters.

While the BBC correspondent in Bangladesh has confirmed at least one case of abnormal voting, possibly with the help of polling official in a centre of Mohammadpur, where 33% votes were cast in a centre though there were no queues in front of the booths and the machines of that centre were out of order for several hours.

No confidence on voters

Though decision-makers of Awami League love to refer different surveys to back their claim that people are with them when it comes to voting, it appears that they do not take themselves seriously.

Acknowledging that the election atmosphere this time was pretty well before the election compared to the last national election, nervous breakdowns were observed right before the poll when government ministers including their head started coming down on foreign missions in Bangladesh with a view to limiting their manpower. This was possibly done to reduce their coverage area during the election as the more frequent movement of observers would have created a problem to rig the poll.

Right before the election, an open call was made for the AL-men to occupy and control polling centres by a top AL leader. Awami League praesidium member Abdur Rahman said, “You will go to the polling centres early in the morning, cast your vote and keep the centres under your control.” Any such call from a person with bare minimum confidence on voters is unlikely.

And finally, the way the AL-men took control of each centre, escorted the voters, intimidated a good number of voters, it is quite evident that the survey and opinion polls matter little to AL top brass, and their confidence over the voter is quite low.

What is next?

This election will bear the hallmark of the great fall of much-anticipated success of all-EVM poll. However, our experience with the election commission says they are not going to pay any heed to that. And with this dysfunctional election system and a machine with so many questions, Bangladesh will be having a tough time with its democracy.