Every major election puts the Awami League and the BNP in a popularity contest. This time Dhaka city election is more than that. Today's election is also a big test for the electronic voting machines (EVMs).
One thing is certain that either the Awami League or the BNP candidates will come out victorious in the battle of ballots. But, none can say for sure that the machines will win at the end of the day.
For the first time in the electoral history of Bangladesh, only EVMs are being used in a major election that already appeared as a prestigious battle of ballots between the two political rivals.
More than 50 lakh voters are entitled to cast votes using over 14,000 machines to elect two mayors and over 150 councillors in the two city corporations in the capital.
If everything goes smoothly, this will be a big boost for the machines. It will also help restore people's confidence in the Election Commission that has been implementing a Tk3,825 crore project for modernising the voting system by abandoning conventional ballot papers and boxes.
Major technical glitches faced by the machines, if any, during the polling may jeopardise the future of the project and intensify the ongoing controversy over its use in future.
And such unpleasant situation will remind many of us of the bitter memories regarding the waste of a few hundred crore taka for the preparation of voter list with photographs in the 1990s by the then EC.
Using EVMs in election in Bangladesh is a new concept.
In the last one decade, the EC used EVMs on a small scale in local government elections and in one constituency in the last parliamentary polls.
It took decades for the Indian EC to accomplish the Herculean task of introducing EVMs for large scale elections.
The idea of EVM was first mooted by the Indian EC in 1977. It used EVMs first as an experiment at some polling stations of a constituency in the Kerala state assembly election in 1982.
The commission continued to use the machines in several other state elections on a small scale. Then it went for large scale use of EVMs since 2000. Everything the Indian EC has done was done through consensus among the political parties.
Yet, use of EVMs was mired in controversy before the 2019 parliamentary election in India as the opposition political parties claimed that the machines were subject to manipulation and tampering.
In the face of growing debate, the Indian EC introduced voter verifiable paper audit trail (VVPAT) or verifiable paper record (VPR). Each of the EVM was backed by a VVPT – a method to record each vote cast by generating an EVM slip.
None of the EVMs used in today's city polls is backed by a VVPT though experts have suggested that use of VVPT could minimise the fear of manipulating the machines.
The global experience regarding the use of voting machines is also not pleasing. Germany, the Netherlands and Ireland have discarded the machines after using them for a short period for security flaws in the machines triggering widespread debates.
"As of now 31 countries used or studied EVMs. Only four use it nationwide, 11 use EVMs in some parts. Pilots are on in five nations. Three nations have discontinued it while 11, which ran pilots, decided against electronic voting," according to a report of the Economics Times of India.
Our EC, however, has assured voters and the political parties opposing the use of machines in polls that the EVMs are being used to thwart any attempt to rig voting.
But, people's confidence in the current EC is low because of its weak role in holding free and fair elections in the past years.
Moreover, free-style electioneering for three weeks by the contenders in the city polls has proved that the EC has little control over the electoral race. Frequent violation of electoral code of conduct was a major feature of the election campaign. But, the EC's action against rule violation was not visible.
Given the situation, it is tough for many to expect that the EC can play a strong role to ensure an atmosphere conducive to free and fair election.
A free and fair election, however, will change the perception. This will also be a positive mark in the history of the city corporation.
It has only one participatory and good election held two and a half decades ago. In the first election to the Dhaka City Corporation in January 1994, the then opposition Awami League-supported candidate Mohammad Hanif defeated the then ruling BNP-backed candidate Mirza Abbas.
The second election to the undivided Dhaka city in 2002 was not participatory as the then opposition Awami League did not field any mayoral candidate, giving a walkover to the then ruling BNP leader Sadeque Hossain Khoka with an easy win.
In the third election in 2015, the opposition BNP fielded candidates to the divided Dhaka city corporations. But they boycotted the polls midway, alleging that ruling party men captured polling stations and stuffed ballot boxes. The Awami League candidates won both the mayoral polls.
In the run up to the polls, the opposition BNP has strongly been complaining about the atmosphere for today's election – the major battle of ballots after the December 2018 parliamentary election which was questioned in terms of its fairness.
Interestingly, a local government election suddenly drew international community's attention as diplomats from different countries stationed in Dhaka already expressed their interests in observing the polls.
Therefore, today's election has become an immensely significant event on many counts.