Dire lessons from the Cumilla City Corporation election
The just completed Cumilla City Corporation election was a "test case" for the newly formed Awal Commission. The EC deployed a large number of magistrates and law enforcement personnel and installed CCTV cameras to ensure free, fair and peaceful election in Cumilla. Consequently, the election was violence free, although not free from chaos, confusion and drama.
The experience of the Cumilla City Corporation election raises two serious questions relating to: (a) the capability and competence of the EC; and (b) the appropriateness of using EVMs in future elections.
During the campaign period, the EC issued a directive under section 22 of the "Code of Conduct" asking the sitting MP, AKM Bahauddin Bahar, who was residing within the city corporation, to leave the area. Mr Bahar failed to comply, and as far as we know, such defiance never happened before. In response, the CEC said that the EC could not do anything about it, although section 31 and 32 of the Code of Conduct clearly specify penalties for such violation, including the imposition of fines, jail sentence and even cancellation of the candidature of the candidate supported by the MP. One of the commissioners went further to say that the EC could not "dishonour" an "honourable" person – though the commission previously cancelled the candidatures of a Paurashava and several UP chairmen, who are small fries, and even postponed elections for such violations.
If the Awal Commission could not compel one MP to abide by the law, how will it be able to do so during the national election, when there will be lot more pressure from many powerful quarters?
Clearly, the EC failed to enforce the electoral law, as a result of which one MP got away by defying the Code of Conduct. More worryingly, the CEC and the other commissioners appear to have helplessly surrendered their authority and even failed to "faithfully discharge the duties of" the "office according to law'. Can the citizens remain unalarmed when the members of an independent constitutional body fail to obey their oath of office?
The Awal Commission will have to conduct the 12th Parliamentary election in 18 months, which could potentially cause the transfer of power. In that election, many of the 300 MPs, several thousand other candidates, thousands of members of the bureaucracy and law enforcement – many of whom have partisan bents – and political party activists will desperately try to influence the results. If the Awal Commission could not compel one MP to abide by the law, how will it be able to do so during the national election, when there will be lot more pressure from many powerful quarters? In addition, in the national election, the EC will not have so many magistrates and law enforcement personnel to deploy, and those deployed may also not act neutrally.
Regarding the use of EVM, the Cumilla City Corporation election once more established that the biometrics-based EVM currently in use suppresses voting. It may be recalled that in the 11th parliamentary election, the turnout rate was 80.80 percent in 294 constituencies, where paper ballots were used, whereas the turnout rate was 51.54 percent in six constituencies that used EVMs, representing a 30 percent difference. This is a dramatic evidence of voter suppression.
Even in the Cumilla City Corporation election, the voter turnout declined because of the use of the biometrics-based EVMs. In 2012, when nonbiometrics-based EVMs were used, the turnout rate was 75 percent. In 2017, when paper ballots were used, the turnout rate was 63.92 percent. By contrast, the turnout rate in the recent election was 58.74 percent, a 16 percent decline from 2012 and about 5 percent less than 2017. Many Cumilla voters were reported to have been unhappy about the slowness of the voting and some even left without voting. How can one justify using machines in voting when they prevent voters from exercising their right of franchise?
Another serious concern about the use of EVM arises from its technical limitations. The pandemonium and drama staged during the declaration of the results and the controversy about the final results of the mayoral election were due to these technical limitations, which make the EVM susceptible to digital manipulation.
Another serious concern about the use of EVM arises from its technical limitations. The pandemonium and drama staged during the declaration of the results and the controversy about the final results of the mayoral election were due to these technical limitations, which make the EVM susceptible to digital manipulation. The EVM does not have the "voter verifiable paper audit trail" (VVPAT), because of which results declared by the election officials are final, and they cannot be audited or verified through recounting. In other words, the dependability of the EVM depends largely on the so-called "men behind the machine" as the election officials are given the authority to override the EMV. According to a BBC report, in the 2018 election, the election officials were allowed to override the EVM in up to 25 percent of the cases. Because of these technical limitations, the late Professor Jamilur Reza Chowdhury, as the head of the technical advisory committee, formed by the EC, refused to sign the recommendation to buy the EVM without the VVPAT. It may be noted in the last Chattogram City Corporation election, the results were declared twice, indicating digital manipulation.
Let us now focus on the drama created by the disruption of the declaration of the results. When the results of 101 centres were declared, Monirul Haque had 48,492 votes compared to 47,863 votes for Arfanul Haque – a difference of 629 votes. At that point, the Returning Officer stopped the declaration of the results of the mayoral contest because he did not have, by his own admission, the results of the remaining centres (Prothom Alo, June 16, 2022). Surprisingly, the results of those four centres came in about four hours after closing of the polling, although they should have been available to the Presiding Officers with the mere pressing of a few buttons.
What is even more surprising is that the results of those four remaining centres caused a dramatic turnaround of 972 votes, causing Arfanul Haque to win by 343 votes, whereas he was losing by 629 votes based on the results of 101 centres. It must be a miraculous coincidence that Arfanul Haque had such a vote bank in the four centres whose results were reported last, allowing him to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.
Monirul Haque raised the allegation that he was defeated through manipulation. But because of the technical limitation of not having VVPAT in the EVM used, his allegation could not be proved or disproved either way. It may be noted that under the direction of the Indian Supreme Court, the EC there had to add VVPT to their EVMs. Many countries, including technologically advanced ones, have been abandoning the use of EVMs because of the complications they create.
Dr Badiul Alam Majumdar is the secretary of SHUJAN: Citizens for Good Governance.