Thursday, September 13, 2012

After successful pilot, future of e-voting in Bangladesh looks uncertain

In 2008, millions of Bangladeshis were eagerly queued to vote
on the country's first election in seven years. Photo: Abir Abdullah/EPA

Peaceful, credible and transparent elections. These ideals have eluded Bangladeshi voters who for decades have been resigned to poll fraud and the attendant violence. Last year, however, two cities have had a taste of a possible breakthrough.   

For the first time, voters of Chittagong and Narayanganj elected their new leaders using electronic voting machines (EVMs). Many voters regarded their first experience with automated elections very positively. 

According to the article entitled “EVM passes with flying colours” (Rizanuzzaman Laskar, Daily Star, October 31, 2011),  voters praised the machines as  “quick”, “convenient” and “easy-to-use.”

The article further reports about a 105-old man named Jahedul Haque Bhuiyan who exclaimed that voting using the EVM was the most fun he has  ever had in any election. A 19-year old first-time voter, Suraiya Islam enthused that voting was fun “like playing a video game!”

Aside from the high degree of voter satisfaction, the results of the automated elections in the two cities were widely accepted. This was in stark contrast with the unrest that marred fraud-ridden elections in the past years. These positive developments have led observers to hail the exercise a huge success.

Given the impressive results of the pilot implementations, EVM's seem to be a logical choice for the country’s next general elections. However, it is not smooth sailing for automated elections as the Elections Commission has seemed to have had second thoughts about using the EVM's countrywide.  

The reason? Dominant opposition party BMP, citing reliability issues, has manifested its strong objection against the use of EVM's for the general elections.

There might be valid reasons for the BMP to oppose the nationwide use of EVM's. After all, ensuring a level playing field is always of paramount concern among political parties.  But every stakeholder in Bangladesh would be well advised to keep in mind that electronic voting is in its infancy in their country.  Most likely, the issues being raised are nothing that cannot be remedied in time for the next elections.

The elections in Chittagong and Narayanganj have shown that automation works in Bangladesh. Before shutting the door completely on EVM’s the Election Commission should consider that the benefits of automated elections far outweigh the costs that might be incurred to make sure that a reliable and secure system is in place.