Government at loggerheads with ECP over I-Voting, EVM 

Hassan Naqvi Staff Reporter

17th Sep, 2021. 07:11 pm
ECP

ECP

LAHORE: The ongoing tussle between the Prime Minister Imran Khan-led Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) government and Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) of Pakistan Sikandar Sultan Raja has intensified over the use of Electronic Voting Machine (EVM) in the next general elections.

According to sources from Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP), CEC Sikander Sultan Raja held a meeting on Thursday and has sent notices to Federal Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry and Federal Minister for Railways Azam Khan Swati, asking them to provide documentary evidence of the allegations they had made on ECP otherwise an inquiry and subsequent action would be initiated against them.

“CEC Sikander Raja is an upright officer and has decided not to bow down to anyone and will not take any pressure,” a senior member of ECP told Bol News.

He has sought the clippings and content of the speeches of these ministers against ECP and him from PEMRA.”

It may be mentioned that during a recent meeting of the Senate’s Standing Committee on Parliamentary Affairs headed by Taj Haider, Federal Minister for Railways Swati had alleged that CEC Sikander Sultan Raja is a corrupt official and if he (Swati) had his way, he would set ECP on fire.

Furthermore, in a press conference on September 10, Federal Minister for Information and Broadcasting Fawad Chaudhry said that it seems the ECP has become opposition’s headquarter and CEC Sikander Sultan Raja is acting as opposition parties’ mouthpiece.

“He (CEC) should look at his behaviour or join politics and better not become the tool used by small political parties for their gains,” Chaudhry said.

The federal minister further alleged that no one is satisfied with the commission because it always comes up with a strange logic.  “We have invited opposition parties to come forward and participate in discussion with the government on electoral reforms,” Chaudhry said.

He was of the opinion that the Khan-led PTI government wanted to incorporate technology in the electoral process of the country to ensure transparency but unfortunately, it seemed that the commission had become the opposition’s headquarter.

“All institutions of the country must abide by the law of the country including ECP. While talking about the law it is not the commission that should be considered as a whole rather it is the CEC Sikander Sultan Raja, who has become the Opposition’s mouthpiece and is quite fond of it,” alleged Chaudhry.

He further alleged that the CEC Sikander may have had close contacts with PML-N supremo and ex-PM Nawaz Sharif and may even have sympathies for him. “We have no issues with that but whether it is ECP or any other institution of this country, it must abide by the parliament,” he said.

ECP’s objections to EVM

It is pertinent to mention that on September 7, ECP raised 37 objections on the proposed use of EVM in the next general elections.

The ECP, in a 34-point document submitted to the Parliamentary Affairs Committee of Senate, stated that EVM is susceptible to tampering and its software can be altered easily.

“It is not advisable to introduce EVM across the country in one go because the time is too short for procurement and deployment of EVM’s on a large scale,” ECP stated in its document sent to the Standing Committee.

ECP feared that if EVM’s are introduced nationwide in one go it would be almost impossible to impart training to a massive number of operators and the constitutional requirement of polls on one day would be impossible.

In its document, the ECP also pointed out numerous other issues linked with the use of EVM such as lack of capacity, lack of security, ballot secrecy, custody of EVMs in general and during transportation from one place to another.

“In case of an election dispute there will be no evidence available. Data integration and configuration may come up in case of court orders at the eleventh hour regarding a change in ballot papers,” ECP pointed out.

They also informed the standing committee, “EVM could not prevent issues and electoral frauds like booth capturing, low voters turnout, low women turnout, misuse of state authority, election fraud, electronic ballot stuffing, vote buying, the law and order situation, dishonest polling staff, widespread political and electoral violence and abuse of state resources,” the ECP document reads.

ECP also informed the standing committee that leading developed nations across the globe including Germany, Holland, Italy, Ireland and Finland had already abandoned the use of EVM due to lack of security. “It is impossible to conduct free, fair, credible and transparent elections as per the constitution of Pakistan if we introduce technology (EVM) in haste.

Mentioning about the prerequisites for the introduction of EVM into country’s electoral process, ECP stated that it requires availability of a secure and reliable solution, political consensus among the parties represented in parliament and amendments to the Constitution, acts and rules, infrastructure deployment for staggered elections, threat models and risks assessment and disaster recovery plan.

It is pertinent to mention that ECP’s Special Secretary Zafar Iqbal Hussain also informed the Standing Committee on Parliamentary affairs in a meeting that ECP is not against the use of technology but it should be completely secured and tested before it is being implemented across the country.

“We need to have consensus among the stakeholders and that’s why EVM should not be introduced in an undue haste. EVMs should not be used in the next general elections,” Hussain said.

Agreeing with Hussain, former Secretary ECP Kanwar Dilshad told Bol News that he feared a huge electoral fraud if EVMs are introduced in the next general elections in a haste.

“Let me be very clear these machines could be easily be tampered with and we need to procure around 0.8 million EVMs if the decision is taken to use them in one go and also requires a constitutional amendment,” Dilshad noted.

Speaking about the financial impact of EVMs the commission informed the standing committee that if introduced it would be very costly as there are approximately 100,000 polling stations and around 400,000 polling booths.

According to ECP estimates, 900,000 machines would be required if separate machines are to be used for National Assembly and provincial assemblies’ elections.

ECP noted that if EVMs are introduced it will approximately cost Rs150 billion, keeping in mind the initial investment and ongoing costs including storage cost and hiring and training of staff and other expenditures.

“ECP doesn’t have warehouses where 900,000 machines could be kept in ideal conditions,” ECP added.

It further stated that during presentations there were different viewpoints from different companies. “Some companies said that these EVMs could be used only once as the storage cost is too high, while the other companies were of the opinion that they could be used for 2-3 elections,” ECP concluded.

Internet Voting System (I-Voting) 

Interestingly, ECP’s Director General IT Muhammad Khizar Aziz, in his letter written to Chairman NADRA Tariq Malik regarding the Internet Voting System (I-Voting), in reply to his letters written on August 20 and September 6 stated that ECP being a constitutional entity will discharge its constitutional obligations as per the article 218 (3) of the constitution.

Further, the responsibility and execution of any new methodology is the primary and sole responsibility of ECP, for which it stands committed, provided the technology is implementable and practical in the given time-frame.

“The Election Commission has expressed dismay to the general tone and tenor used, particularly in para-1 (h) of the letter dated August 20, 2021 issued by NADRA:- ECP should consider progressing positively on NADRA’s proposed system at the earliest; otherwise there might be unwanted and uncalled for delays.” the letter read.

Aziz stated that the language used in NADRA’s letter is leading to the impression that ECP is a subordinate body of NADRA, which is trying to dictate a constitutional body, which may be avoided in future correspondence.

“Further, under rules of business, staff officers cannot address senior officers,” he wrote.

Aziz shared that NADRA intends to engage ECP in a new contract amounting to Rs2.4 billion for development of the I-Voting System, whereas the existing agreement is still in the field.

“ECP is of the view that in the first instance, NADRA may inform the fate of the previous project that why NADRA is going to abandon the previous system and on what grounds and on which considerable sum of money equal to Rs66.5 million has been already dispensed with,” said the letter.

Aziz asked that NADRA may also inform that in the presence of an existing system with similar output, why should ECP go for a new contract amounting to Rs2.4 billion? If the existing system has some loopholes or deficiencies, then who is responsible for those deficiencies and whether these could or would be removed? Has NADRA fixed the responsibility on anyone? he asked.

Sources from the President House told Bol News that during a recent meeting on EVM at President House, chaired by President Arif Alvi and attended by Fawad Chaudhry, Azam Swati and others, DG IT ECP Aziz had been forced to take back the 37 objections raised by ECP on EVM.

SC dismisses plea against appointment of CEC 

It is pertinent to mention that the Supreme Court of Pakistan (SC) on Wednesday dismissed a constitutional petition filed by Advocate Ali Azeem Afridi, challenging the appointment of Chief Election Commissioner Sikandar Sultan Raja as it upheld the objections raised by the registrar’s office on the petition.

The petition against CEC  

The petition filed by Afridi reads: “Section 4 of the Constitution (Twenty-Second Amendment) Act, 2016 (XXV OF 2016); to the extent of allowing appointment of senior civil servant and technocrat as chief election commissioner and by treating them at par with that of the judge of the Supreme Court and on that score enabling them to superintend and supervise the role of member(s); under the robes as judges of the high court; be declared ultra vires of the constitution.”

The petition further reads: “Allowing appointment of the most senior member in age i.e. senior civil servant or technocrat; to superintend or supervise the role of a person who has been a Judge of a High Court given Section 7 of the Constitution (Twenty-Second Amendment) Act, 2016 (XXV of 2016) be declared ultra vires of the Constitution.”

Afridi pleaded before the apex court to declare the appointment of CEC unconstitutional as per law. He stated: “The appointment of senior civil servant and technocrat as CEC, given its placement equally with that of a judge of the Supreme Court; impels novelty and outmode (s) the salient features, steering the constitution.”

But the registrar office of the top court dismissed the petition raising six objections.

“The petitioner (Afridi) had not mentioned how the issue is related to public importance and the language of the constitutional petition was ambiguous and misconceived as contents of the petition were interlinked,” the registrar office remarked.

Interestingly, Sikander Sultan Raja was recommended by PM Imran himself and his name was also sent to Opposition Leader in National Assembly Shehbaz Sharif. The premier, in his letter written to the PML-N President, proposed three names for the slot of Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) which were Jamil Ahmed, Fazal Abbas Maken and SIkander Sultan Raja.

Sikander Raja, who was appointed CEC in January 2020, was a BS-22 officer of Pakistan Administrative Services (PAS) and had also served as Secretary Railways and Petroleum. He was a batchmate of former chief secretary Punjab Jawad Rafique Malik and Fawad Hasan Fawad, the former principal secretary to premier Nawaz Sharif.

It is pertinent to mention that he is also the son-in-law of Saeed Mehdi, a former principal secretary of Nawaz Sharif.

Sources added that since Raja is an upright individual who doesn’t take pressure from anyone due to which things are soaring between him and the government. “He (Raja) is definitely not a yes man,” a senior bureaucrat, who had worked with him, told Bol News.

Sources from PM’s office told Bol News that PM Imran Khan has made up his mind to replace Sikandar Sultan Raja as he believes that he is one of the biggest hurdles in the implementation of EVM and I-Voting in the country.

“The PTI government is mulling over a proposal to file reference against CEC Sikandar Sultan Raja in Supreme Judicial Council (SJC) and other options to remove him,” a senior PTI leader told Bol News, adding that he (PM) is consulting cabinet members and leading lawyers about it.

“The PTI’s relationship with the CEC and ECP has been on the decline since the Daska by-elections,” sources said.

They added that the government wants to introduce electoral reforms so that the next general elections could be held on I-Voting System using EVMs. But the opposition parties are against using EVM in 2023 elections and want the old ballot system in place.

“The duty of the election commission is to bring both government and the opposition on the table and find a solution to the ongoing tussle over the I-Voting system. But unfortunately the EC has itself become a party in the whole debate,” some sources said.

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