Senate body rejects changes related to EVMs

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Swati accuses ECP of ‘always’ rigging polls; Says ‘set such institutions on fire’

 Staff Reporter
Islamabad

Senate Standing Committee on Parliamentary Affairs on Friday rejected the amendment proposed by the government to install Electronic Voting Machines in next elections in order to ensure they are free and fair.

The committee, which met with Senator Taj Haider in the chair, also rejected the amendment proposed for open balloting in Senate elections and introduction of e-voting for the overseas Pakistanis.

The debate on the burning issues relating to the holding of general elections was not passed without incident as participants levelled allegations against each other and later staged walkout from the meeting.

Election Commission of Pakistan officials walked out of the meeting after Railways Minister Azam Swati levelled serious allegations against the ECP officers of taking bribes.

Azam Swati lashed out at the Election Commission of Pakistan, accusing it of “always” rigging polls and said such institutions should be “set on fire”.

The standing committee has 14 members with four from the PTI, three from the PPP, two from PML-N, two independents, and one each from the BAP, the MQM-P and the JUI-P.

Before the committee voted on the proposed amendments, Swati came down hard on the ECP and alleged that the commission took bribes to rig polls.

He said the ECP was making fun of the government, adding the commission was not entitled to “ruin” democracy in the country.

Swati’s remarks also drew criticism from the opposition. PML-N Vice President Maryam Nawaz said that the party had only ever highlighted negative characters within institutions.

“But the government is threatening to set a whole institution on fire and there is no one to [hold them] accountable,” she said. PPP Senator Sherry Rehman called out the minister’s “seriously inappropriate behaviour”.

“If it does not bend to their will, to say a constitutional institution should be burnt down is like saying let’s just dispense with all democratic norms and get on with our model of one-party authoritarianism. Rig the system for us or trash it,” she said.

During the meeting, Adviser to the Prime Minister on Parliamentary Affairs Babar Awan said that the election commission was not above the law and had to work within its ambit.

The ECP in a document submitted on Sep 7 to the standing committee had warned that electronic voting machines were prone to tampering and the software could easily be altered.

“It is nearly impossible to ensure that every machine is honest,” the ECP had noted in the document. Responding to the ECP’s reservations, Awan questioned the commission for delaying work on introducing EVMs.

“Why do we feel threatened by the technology?” he asked. He said the government had also written a letter to the commission about the budget and security of EVMs, but didn’t receive a response.

Haider stressed the need to listen to the ECP’s objections regarding the proposed amendments to the election law. At one point, Swati walked out of the meeting with his fellow parliamentarians while calling out the chairman for allegedly not allowing government members to take part in the session through video conferencing.

Afterwards, the committee, in the absence of the members of the treasury benches, rejected the proposed amendments concerning voting rights for overseas Pakistanis, use of EVMs in the next general elections and holding Senate polls through the open ballot.

The Elections (Amendment) Bill 2020 was introduced in the National Assembly on Oct 16, 2020, and it was passed by the standing committee concerned on June 8 amid the opposition’s protest. The bill sailed through the lower house on June 11.

“Whenever the ECP tries to become independent, the government starts to have a problem with it,” added Senator Azam Nazeer Tarar.

The committee’s chairperson sent Senator Kamran Murtaza to convince the ECP officials to return to the meeting. However, State Minister for Parliamentary Affairs Ali Muhammad Khan said the ECP officials were deeply upset and would not return to the meeting.

Senator Mustafa Nawaz Khokhar and Azam Swati also exchanged hot words, with the PPP senator asking the minister about the alleged bribe. “Azam Swati should tell us who paid bribes to the ECP?” he asked. “Was it the PPP or the PML-N?”
A defiant Swati stuck to his guns, saying that he had said nothing wrong.

Babar Awan told the committee that the government would respond to the Election Commission of Pakistan’s objections to the use of these machines.

Later, Senator Taj Haider presented an amendment about EVMs for approval. Azam Swati protested against Haider, accusing him of not allowing Senator Samina Mumtaz to cast her vote. “You are not taking our lawmaker on line so that she can cast her vote,” he said. “We are walking out in protest,” he added, and representatives of the government left the meeting.

The committee proceeded to vote on amendments to the Election Act in their absence. The committee shot down the use of electronic voting machines and also rejected an amendment relating to the I-voting of overseas Pakistanis.

The committee also rejected an amendment to the Act that wanted NADRA, instead of the ECP, to issue election lists and also rejected an amendment for Senate elections to be held via an open ballot as opposed to a secret one.

On Friday, the Election Commission of Pakistan submitted a four-page letter to Taj Haider, the chairman of the senate’s standing committee on parliamentary affairs, which expressed its reservations regarding the proposed election amendment bills.

The ECP stated that it endorses the introduction of new technologies in the electoral process but has concerns about the process being pushed in “haste”.

“The Commission, while in favor of technology, believes that the technology to be used must be secured and sufficiently tested,” the letter argued, adding that the EVM should be subject to massive testing by procuring the machine on a small scale for a pilot project first.

The ECP also proposed that the selected machines be used in local government elections, by-elections and a few constitutions in the next general elections first and then on a large scale.

It further highlighted that with the usage of machines, elections will have to be held in a staggered manner rather than in a single day, which will require legal amendments.

“EVMs are offered as a defence against ballot stuffing and altering results,” the letter noted, “EVMs will not counter all types of frauds and open up the possibility of other more sophisticated types of fraud and manipulation of software and hardware.”

The Commissions also insisted that the Senate committee take into consideration the cost of EVMs. If a separate machine is used for the national assembly and the provincial assembly then at least 900,000 machines will be required for approximately 100,000 polling stations and 400,000 polling booths. “The system would cost an estimated Rs150 billion,” it added.

 

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