TK 10,000cr MORE FOR EVM USE IN 150 PARLIAMENTARY SEATS
As the Election Commission (EC) has already geared into election mode following its September 14 announcement of roadmap for the next parliamentary elections, budgetary allocation and procurement come next on the list of its priorities. In the 20-page roadmap, the commission had three pages containing discussion about the much-touted Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) to be used in maximum 150 seats during the next national polls. As the EC waits for final nod after sending a proposal to Planning Commission on October 19 aimed at procurement and maintenance of nearly 200,000 EVMs, EC Commissioner Md Alamgir on November 9 came up with a rather cautionary note stipulating that if the EVM procurement proposal is not approved by mid-January next, it won’t be possible to conduct voting in 150 constituencies using the electronic devices. In fact, the EC has been in hot waters already ahead of the elections by placing demand for rise in in the expenditure meant for various sectors including purchase of EVMs, procurement of over 500 vehicles to carry out the gigantic work by way of transporting machines during polls, and training of election officials. Police department, on the other hand, has asked for an additional allocation over the budget apportioned for the current financial year in a bid to, what it said, maintain security during the election.
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At present, there is an economic crisis looming large across the world following the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war, which has also affected the Bangladesh economy. In such a situation, experts are warning that spending extra money, estimated to be about Tk 10,000 combined, for partial e-voting will be excruciating for economy. Questions appeared in public minds too as to whether such an additional budget is really justified and appropriate at all.
HEFTY BUDGET FOR ELECTION COMMISSION
The EC in a September 19 meeting decided in favour of a project to purchase, repair and maintain 200,000 EVMs at a cost estimated to be Tk 8,711.44 crore. Earlier on September 14, the EC released the election roadmap, wherein it stipulated plan to use EVMs in the said constituencies. The commission currently has the capacity to use EVMs in maximum 75 seats. As a result, the EC has opted for the new project to have the additional EVMs available to bring more seats under electronic voting system. In this regard, Commissioner Alamgir said, “With the capacity we have, it is possible to arrange vote in a maximum of 70 to 75 seats with EVM. So, the EC secretariat was asked to form a project to buy more EVMs. The initial proposal they made lacked some information, so the proposal was later submitted with complete information. Now we feel it can be sent to the Planning Commission. Now, it is up to them whether to approve it or not.”
The use of EVM has turned out to be a highly controversial issue in the country’s elections these days. In dialogues with the EC, majority political parties were against the use of EVM in the upcoming elections. How- ever, the EC decided to use EVM in the polls – thereby defying all the objections. Since then, there has been storm of criticisms in the political circles regarding the pesky issue. As a result, the EC’s latest request to increase the budget to buy more EVMs comes at a time when there is a huge debate over EVM, growing eco- nomic crisis and stagflation in the country. As a result, experts feel that it is unreasonable for the EC to demand so much extra budget for a rather controversial issue like using EVM during such a crucial period of sheer uncertainty.
BUDGETARY MEASURE FOR MAINTAINING SECURITY
The law-enforcers, meanwhile, have asked for an additional outlay of Tk 1,226 crore in the current financial year to maintain security during the challenging time of election. According to a recent letter sent by the police headquarters to the Ministry of Home Affairs, the proposed sum will be spent to ensure law and order, peaceful elections and security of people’s lives and properties in time of the next national elections. The list of goods to-be bought provided by the police includes arms and ammunition, essential motor vehicles and fuel, intelligence assistance, operational and security items. According to the police proposal, the unrest suppression materials and operational materials of the force are totally inadequate for the duty of maintaining law and order and security during the crucial elections. Therefore, in order to increase the capacity of the police ahead of the elections, it is essential to dispense additional funds from the budget in the current fiscal year. “Unless necessary unrest-control equipment and operational equipment are given to the police, it will be difficult to maintain law and order and provide the necessary security to people’s lives and property during, before and after the upcoming national elections,” the letter said. It further stated that without the equipment, the personal security of the police personnel engaged in maintaining law and order at field level will also be disturbed.
Most of the financial analysts, however, denied this because they think it is possible to buy necessary items with the provided budget to the police and deliver proper election security. According to them, Bangladesh in view of the critical situation that has surfaced around the world should avoid additional expenses. Furthermore, political analysts say that the police should make proper utilisation and justification of the limited budget. Maintaining law and order in elections is surely a difficult task, but they feel it is not impossible with the current capacity thereby keeping in mind the budget and manpower involved. Mostly, they say that governments of every country should practice austerity amid current ongoing crisis around the world, and law enforcement agencies should play a vital role in preventing excess wastage as much as possible.
CONTROVERSY OVER EXCESSIVE BUDGET
The government has taken various steps including preserving electric- ity and suspending less important projects to deal with the emerging economic crisis. Despite adopting such austerity moves, the EC wants to buy 200,000 more EVMs for the next elections, the cost of which has been estimated at Tk 8711.44 crore on part of EC. One might recall here that only Tk 700 crore was dispensed for the previous national polls. Even if the expenditure is doubled this time, the total cost should have been less than 1500 crore. But to use EVM in the polls, this time it’s projected to cost about 14 times more. The EC has already announced that in the upcoming elections, a maximum 150 out of 300 constituencies will see voting held through EVMs. As a result, the possible expenditure in the next elections will be around Tk 10,000 crore.
Despite the huge budget involved, analysts are of the view that there is no guarantee that the EVM outcomes will be perfectly fair. Also, there’s a growing debate in political arena over the use of EVM in the polls. The ruling Awami League and some of its allies are in favour of EVM, while there’s suspicion and mistrust among the opposition parties including BNP and Jatiya Party about EVM. Besides, many voters are not yet comfortable with regard to EVM use. Even a section of the voters across the country are fearful of technology, which the EC acknowledged. Furthermore, there’re glitches like fingerprints not being matched, delays in taking votes due to technical errors etc. The EC secretariat is yet to calculate how much money will be spent with next parliamentary polls in view. A large part of election expenses are spent to maintain law and order and conduct elections, while a minor part of expenditure is made on ballots and other costs.
Whether by ballot or EVM, the cost of maintaining law and order for conducting polls will remain same. Voting thru EVM increases the cost due to the device’s huge cost. There is also the challenge of familiarising a large number of voters with EVMs. Also, election officials’ training will be costly as well as time-consuming. To this should be added the cost of 1973 1988 2001 POLITICS EVM maintenance. EC sources said warehouses will be constructed in 19 districts to store the EVMs. Moreover, the commission will buy more than 500 cars to carry out election work including transportation of machine to conduct the elections. These presents a clear picture of how costly EVM voting can be, along with the controversies. Also, many are criticising the price of the ma- chines referred in the project. The high-configuration EVMs used by neighbouring India in their elections cost only Tk 26,000 each, while the price of EVM planned to be procured in the national polls is estimated at around Tk 250,000 each, which is almost 10 times costlier. Questions have been raised as to why the EC is so desperate to hold votes through EVM ignoring all negative feedbacks, and why EVMs are being procured at a higher price in this crucial juncture. One may argue: since there is pressure on the country’s reserves, power situation remains fragile due to import dependant energy dearth. Spending large amount of money on EVMs, therefore, will surely put pressure on the reserves.
WHAT DO THE EXPERTS SAY?
Political analysts and experts termed such a big-budget move for EVM a luxury and irrational. They said when the government is pursuing austerity measures to deal with the looming economic crisis, there is no scope for even considering such untimely proj- ect. They are also questioning the logic behind the huge EVM budget in view of the current reality when Bangladesh is seeking loan assistance from multilateral lending agencies like World Bank and IMF to combat economic crisis. Economist and financial sector analyst Dr Ahsan H Mansur has termed the EVM scheme absurd due to the looming financial crisis in the country. He said, “This is an avoidable expenditure. The government should avoid this huge expenditure. It is a question of the strength of our foreign ex- 5.60crore 1979 5.25crore 1986 change. Again, there is extreme political debate over EVM, so this is critical. It would be better for the government to save money and avoid excess expenditure at the moment.”
Meanwhile, Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB) Executive Director Dr Iftekharuzzaman thinks the decision to buy EVM is predetermined. He said,
“We feel that this is a prefixed decision. This project is being implemented ignoring the views of the policymakers. It is creating a lot of controversies. Besides, it is completely contrary to the government’s cost reduction policy. They should think twice about it.”
SHUJAN (Citizens for Good Governance) Secretary Dr Badiul Alam 5.16crore IF EVM IS USED IN 150 SEATS, THE TOTAL COST MAY BE TK 10,000cr Majumder termed the EVM project budget unbelievable. He said this is an unbelievable decision. When there’s an economic crisis approaching fast, when the government is asking for billion dollars in loan assistance from the development partners, this budget does not make sense at all. It is an expression of sheer irresponsibility on part of those concerned.”
Former Election Commissioner Brigadier General (retd) Dr M Sakhawat Hossain has suggested that the EC should buy CCTV cameras with the allocated budget instead of buying more EVMs for 150 seats. He said, “Good or bad— there is a lot of controversy about EVM. It would be better to buy CCTV cameras as much as possible instead of buying EVMs for 150 seats with the budget.”
INSTANCES OF EVM USE IN NEIGHBOURING NATIONS
In Pakistan, the recently ousted Imran Khan’s party has won six of the eight by-elections. The party did not make any complaint against the electoral system or termed it as the reason for their defeat in the remaining two seats. In neighbouring India, EVM voting has been executed during the BJP regime and after many debates it is now being used in elections in various states. EVM- based elections have also been held in the most politically heated state of West Bengal. There was no fuss either about that election. The ruling BJP, known as the major opposition political party in West Bengal state politics, has been defeated in the state. They also did not make any adverse comments on the voting system. India’s EVM controversy ended upon taking several corrective steps by its powerful Election Commission. The significant part was that after the voters cast their vote, they can see for themselves which party they have voted for, and their votes will be deposited with the ballot box as a paper, which can be used again during recalculation if and when necessary. With such a detailed system attached, the EVM debate has been buried in India. Now, it is entirely up to the EC of Bangladesh to make EVM a part of the voting system and gain public trust.
To wrap up, elections are necessary not only for democratic practices but also for determining the right path of social and financial development. The nation is now facing a critical juncture due to the absence of a strong opposition party. In the absence of an active opposition party, the lack of important discussions in the Parliament on various issues of development has created a serious crisis, including an energy crunch in the country. As the country is heading towards national elections, the debate is intensifying gradually. The post-Covid situation and the Ukraine-Russia war have pushed the world deeper into economic crisis. Various suggestions and advises of the Prime Minister are coming forward in this regard. While the premier is trying to sensitise people about the importance of unity mentioning possibility of food crisis and global economic recession, one or two powerful ministers continue walking the path of division rather than unity among the political forces. Recent talks also give impression that the country’s political arena will be heated further ahead of the ensuing elections.
Even the recent political gatherings signals similar idea. Experts think such divide in critical juncture may push the country towards major economic tension. Behind-the-scene forces gain their strength when a country is politically divided and fails to follow the path of good governance. This can be seen by repeatedly even in the pages of history books. Taking everything into account, analysts think there is no alternative to collectively face the challenges of the future while also tightening belt with regard to lavish expenditures as is billed for EVM procurement.