Two city corporations of Dhaka are going for polls tomorrow.
To cast a light on the forthcoming vote-fest in the capital, The Business Standard's Masum Billah has interviewed former election commissioner Brigadier General (retd) M Sakhawat Hussain, who has expressed optimism for a fair city poll despite a handful of worries.
The city polls will be held using the Electronic Voting Machine (EVM) process this time. In regards to the EVMs and the "suspicions" about it, Sakhawat Hussain expressed his conviction that the doubts regarding the EVM would go away if the EC could ensure a paper trail (VVPAT).
Below, we have published the full interview ad verbatim.
The Business Standard: You have been observing the election campaigns. In line with the previous election experiences and the present scenario, what are your observations and expectations for a free, fair and transparent polls in the Dhaka city corporations?
M Sakhawat Hussain: I hope for a fair and clean election. I hope that the Election Commission (EC) will ensure such an environment where all voters can cast their votes in the city polls setting all the worries aside.
Some allegations, however have come forth, and such incidents may discourage voters from turning out at polling centres. Regrettably, we have not seen the EC taking enough steps in that regard, which actually should have been the case. Despite such worries, I am optimistic about a fair election.
TBS: This time, the city elections will be held in the full-fledged Electronic Voting Machine (EVM) process. Do you think the EC is already prepared for full-scale EVM elections?
Sakhawat Hussain: I will not question the ability of the EC in conducting elections using the EVM process, but there should have been an extensive campaign. Instead of campaigning in the last moment, the EC should have conducted promotions much earlier to educate the people about electronic voting machines.
Many people have confusions and doubts about the EVM process. Earlier campaigns could have lessened such suspicions. I think, however, the doubts regarding the EVM would go away if the EC could ensure a paper trail. I believe this move would resolve much of the issues.
[Voter verifiable paper audit trail (VVPAT) is a method of providing feedback to voters using a ballot-less voting system]
TBS: In previous elections when EVMs were used in a limited scale, there were allegations of "manual riggings" in the EVM booths. The questions were not about the EVM itself, but the allegations were about forcing voters to cast their votes for a particular candidate. In line of the past, do you think such allegations were realistic and do conditions remain the same?
Sakhawat Hussain: Look, such conditions are still very much a reality. If you take control of the booths and do not allow people – even after identification – to cast their own votes, what difference do the EVMs make?
If you do not allow identified voters to enter the polling centres, or if you jam the machines after some preferred voters had cast their votes, everything is possible.
When the reality is such that you can cast someone else's vote after identification in the EVM process, the conditions remain the same.
TBS: In the light of what you said, the worries of some candidates do not sound baseless.
Sakhawat Hussain: The worries remain in both the EVM and the traditional processes, once you allow people to take control of the booths. If you do not allow voters enter the polling stations, if only your men are allowed to vote, or if you force people to cast votes in front of you – which we happen to see as the present trend – how do you prevent this?
This is what happened during the previous limited scale EVM applications. The voters were allegedly forced to cast their votes openly. We have also heard allegations in the past that some identified voters were asked to leave the polling centres without casting their votes and in some cases the agents of particular candidates were forced out of the booths.
These issues have nothing to do with the EVMs, because machines are just machines. If you do not allow its utilisation, what good a machine can do?
TBS: Whenever an election approaches in Bangladesh, we often witness such allegations and incidents. Who do you think is actually in charge of dealing with such cases when we are talking about any election in Bangladesh? How independent is our Election Commission?
Sakhawat Hussain: We can certainly say that the Election Commission is the sole authority in such regards. But such a remark will not show us the full picture. The EC engages a large number of manpower including thousands of security personnel in the field. If those agencies engaged in the field cannot prevent this, indeed no one can.
TBS: So, does the situation imply that our Election Commission lacks the capability to function independently?
Sakhawat Hussain: Freedom is a relative term in this regard, seen and not seen. The efforts of our Election Commission need to be visible. They need to show people that they may fail, but they are trying. Then the people would notice and care about reasons behind their failures.
But unfortunately, we have not seen such attempts from the Election Commission so far.
TBS: Now the question remains regarding the dwindling trust of the people in the electoral process in Bangladesh. How do you think people's trust in this process can be restored?
Sakhawat Hussain: In order to restore the people's faith, the Election Commission should take firm steps. Now in this case, if the EC fails, the responsibility lies on the people.
They will have to go to the polling centres en masse to ensure that their votes are not wasted and no one steals their votes.