How do we get the goons out of the EVM booths?
Elections are coming
The Goons are getting fat
Please put a crore
In the Big Brother's hat
The recent eruption of political activity, and hence political news centred on city corporation elections has again livened up the dull, drab political stage of recent times. True, the excitement may be concentrated among the candidates, their families and diehard supporters who really don't give a fig if their "bosses" have corruption or murder allegations against them. True, for many ordinary folks who may be rolling their eyes at the lofty promises of the candidates and the unbelievable claims of the newly formed election commission, it is hard not to be sceptical about having free and fair elections. But whatever the controversies making the rounds, politics is back in the scene which is always a welcome happening, at least for the newsroom.
Talking of controversy, the introduction of the Electronic Voting Machine (EVM) has also come with its share of bad rep. Perhaps it has something to do with votes being allegedly "hijacked" in the last parliamentary elections when voters tried to vote with a "ghost" lurking behind to press the button before the voter could. In the recent Narayanganj city corporation elections, elderly women voters had problems getting the machines to accept their fingerprints. There were also long delays as the machines were taking time to process each vote. Add to that the fact that many voters had no idea how to cast their vote on a machine causing further delays.
The probability of EVMs being used in the next parliamentary elections, however, is as high as a spike in blood sugar levels of rebellious diabetics during this mango season. What's more, despite the BNP and some other groups crying foul and saying the EVMs will be rigged in favour of the ruling party, eminent people including technology experts are saying the machines are almost 100 percent foul-proof and it would be nearly impossible to manipulate them. Even Zafar Iqbal, a heartthrob of science fiction lovers and a much-revered former professor of Shahjalal University, has vouched for the machines along with others. These experts have further added that those who have reservations about this system should have the machines checked out by their own experts and they should come up with specific complaints. In other words, don't dis what you don't know.
Fair enough. But this still does not answer the ultimate question everyone is asking: How do you keep the goons out of the EVM booths? A former Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) has raised this issue with the new CEC saying that if these goons could be kept out of the booths, more people would trust the EVMs. This was said during a heart-to-heart of former CECs and other election commission officials with the new CEC. Another CEC has said the new EC boss, as a kind of last resort, can set up one polling centre for every 500 voters to reduce the voting hours and complete the counting in the daytime. He alluded to the problems arising when votes are counted in the evening when "jinns and ghosts and everything else" can be seen. Perhaps he has been significantly "spooked" by these creatures along with many of the voters during his tenure.
It may seem like the simplest thing – to remove unruly elements from voting booths, but in Bangladesh's reality "goons and ghouls" dominate everything, especially how politics is played out on the ground. The former CECs, now that they don't have the proverbial gun to their head, seem eager to talk with candour. At this meeting they all agreed that unless all political parties joined the general election, it would not be accepted nationally or internationally. But persuading them to join is no easy feat. Certainly, little will be accomplished if the Election Commission rejects applications by legitimate political parties as it did with Ganasamhati Andolon which was questioned by the court after a writ petition was filed challenging the decision. Nor will it help if the CEC is ineffectual when it comes to making sure no MP campaigns for a candidate of his party which makes the possibility of "a level playing field" little more than a fantasy.
Hence, we must swallow a bitter pill. Suspicion, fear and pessimism are staples in our society where flexing muscles and big bucks dominate elections. This makes the CEC's job of holding a credible, acceptable election a Herculean task.
It is, however, not impossible and the CEC should take the recommendations of his predecessors' seriously. Among other sanguine suggestions, the idea of placing the home ministry and public administration ministry under the authority of the Election Commission would be a brilliant (though perhaps unlikely) move in the right direction. This would give the Commission the necessary power to provide adequate security to the voters and polling officials, especially those who otherwise might be chased away like Little Miss Muffet when trying to do their job. The EC's mettle will of course depend on how sincerely the government will help in strengthening its capacity and endorsing its authority. Only then will the EC have the magic wand that keeps the goons and ghouls out of the election scene.
Aasha Mehreen Amin is joint editor at The Daily Star.