As the members in the parliament cheered the passage of the bill with provisions for selecting the 'most impartial' five people in Bangladesh to form an Election
Commission for overseeing polls, the opposition bench members argued the act would not be able to help conduct fair voting, citing shortcomings.
It took nearly 50 years to move a bill, under the constitution's Article 118, for having a law to constitute the Election Commission for the first time.
However, before the passage of the bill, there was not any broad-based consensus between political parties over the selection process of these 'neutral and competent' persons.
The voting system has always been an apple of discord or the crux of an argument in Bangladesh's politics of power: balloting procedures leave ample scopes for politicians to trade blames over 'manipulation'.
Bangladesh's elections in most cases are studded with all bad elements- from faulty voter roles, fake vote casting and intimidating voters to driving away polling agents of opponents, stuffing ballot boxes, and election officials' shocking behaviour of siding with candidates of their choice.
In the recently held Narayanganj city corporation polls, there had been little or no controversy over balloting, thanks to what critics called the administration's 'no interference policy' in the overall election procedures.
At a recent webinar organised by Centre for Policy, the academics and election experts told that the poll's results, which saw the incumbent mayor Selina Hayat Ivy win straight for the third term, showed that a free, fair, and peaceful election is indeed possible if the 'government and administration do not interfere'. However, political parties' stake in local government and national elections is not the same.
The peaceful Narayanganj polls came on the hot hills of 6-phase 2021-22 Union Parishad elections marked by widespread irregularities and violence that killed at least 95 people across the country.
But will Bangladesh be able to find a neutral administration anymore when every stratum of society is divided along political lines? Professionals in all sectors are engaged in petty politics for petty gains.
Even public servants including bureaucrats are starkly blind in running administration, thanks to coaxing and coercing by the incumbent politicians in breach of their oaths to the office.
Even the caretaker government system responsible to hold free and fair elections in a unique example in the world died a clinical death before it was formally pronounced null and void in June 2011.
The parliament abolished the 15-year-old system of conducting general elections by a non-partisan caretaker government. The system was introduced in the mid-1990s after much hullabaloo to avoid violence and irregularities in elections.
The non-partisan system's neutrality was questioned many times by politicians as it conducted polls. Biassed roles played by government functionaries during changes of government, incumbent's manipulation to install 'a person of choice' as caretaker government chief and loopholes of staying in power by election-time administration beyond the mandated three months had been the major allegations against the system. Still, this constitutional arrangement is viewed as better than elections under the incumbent administration.
With the politicisation of the country's almost every institution, it appears now that it has become imperative to seek assistance from angels to oversee elections in Bangladesh that stood 76th on the Economist Intelligence Unit's Democracy Index 2020.
The Economist Group still classifies Bangladesh as a 'hybrid regime' where "substantial irregularities often prevent the elections from being free and fair".
To improve its status as a democracy, Bangladesh now needs to go for a voting system that requires little or no human intervention and counterveils the mistrust between parties for each other.
EVMs (electronic voting machines) could be the answer for now for this country where orthodox paper balloting has always been smeared through human touch.
Although the public debate over the use of machines to ensure secured voting is still running hot, in the recently held EVM-only Narayanganj city polls and 219 Union
Parishad elections, the only major allegation was the 'slow balloting process' generated due to a problem in fingerprint mismatching.
Many fear machines could be compromised to rig votes. But critics of EVMs fail to understand that any small tampering in machines could be successfully traced if challenged, but a widespread manipulation in traditional voting through ballot papers may not leave any clue to detect.
Every system, be it manual or electronic, will have advantages as well as disadvantages. However, advanced technology will always offer the best solution to fair elections when human trust has evaporated.
True, there have been criticisms that an EVM does not have a voter-verifiable paper audit trail, a printout document re-confirming voting; true, election officials have overriding powers in case a voter's fingerprint is not matched with the database.
Here, the critics should deploy technical experts to keep the machines off human intervention as much as possible, ultimately making the machines foolproof.
Many also fear after fingerprint verification at the voting control unit, anyone forcibly can cast a vote intimidating the genuine voter. Well, it is not a problem with the machines.
It can be minimised well by CCTV cameras connected to a live server in the polling booth. The secret room where voters cast votes can easily be kept off the camera.
Authorities must make smart national ID cards mandatory for every voter to cast a vote. The ID holder or voter can also be verified through iris scanning if fingerprint scanning fails, eliminating fake voters and most importantly doing away with the need for polling booth agents for candidates.
Over 80% of problems relating to voting irregularities will be solved if there is no fake voter and polling agent system.
In the 11th parliamentary elections on December 30, 2018, there were over 2,00,000 polling booths in over 40,000 polling centres to accommodate over 10 core voters with the male and female ratio being almost 50% of the population.
The one-day voting tradition in Bangladesh must go, allowing voters to cast their votes at least seven days ahead of the cut-off day like early polls in the US, eliminating possibilities of preventing voters from going to polling centres. This tactic will cut down costs of deploying a huge number of law enforcers.
Blockchain, the fascinating new technology that allows secured and unalterable electronic data transactions, can also be used in voting.
According to investopedia.com, "Blockchain can solve the many problems discovered in these early attempts at online voting. A blockchain-based voting application does not concern itself with the security of its Internet connection, because any hacker with access to the terminal will not be able to affect other nodes. Voters can effectively submit their vote without revealing their identity or political preferences to the public."
Any system or arrangement is subject to constant change with the change of technologies. Though it is in its nascent stage, blockchain could be the next destination. Using this method, "officials can count votes with absolute certainty, knowing that each ID can be attributed to one vote, no fakes can be created, and that tampering is impossible."
When mistrust is rife among the stakeholders in Bangladesh polls, newer and innovative technologies can indeed solve much of the electoral problems.
Shamim A. Zahedy is a journalist. He can be reached at [email protected].
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of The Business Standard.