September 19, 2018

Can Technology bring transparency to Pakistan’s electoral process?

By Maham Zahid

The 2018 general elections will mark only the second time in Pakistan’s 70-year history when power is transferred from one democratically-elected government to another.

The country has often missed out on opportunities in the past to evolve its democratic process, and by extension the electoral process itself, into a safe and fair system. Illiteracy, corruption, and security threats have been major barriers to efficient democracy in the country. However, the age of information presents technological advancements as possible quick-fixes.

Technology is already playing its role in assisting the democratic process in various other countries. The citizens of Estonia have been able to vote online permanently since 2005. The Internet and social media, in particular, were instrumental to Barack Obama’s US presidential campaign in 2008. More recently, countries such as Somalia have implemented iris scanners for voter verification at polling stations.

Meanwhile Pakistan is still struggling to overcome challenges faced in the 2013 elections.

One such challenge was the review of rigging accusations leveled against the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) by its arch-rival Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaf (PTI). In the aftermath of the 2013 general elections, the PTI chairman Imran Khan had accused PML-N leaders of orchestrating the polling of fraudulent votes to win several Punjab constituencies.

The inquiry commission set up to investigate the allegations found that the verification of ballots was a lengthy and arduous process in which it was also discovered that thumb impressions could not be completely verified due to the quality of ink used.

The use of electronic voting machines and biometric verification devices was suggested to overcome voter verification issues. Given the previous predicament, these solutions could have been used this year to ensure more transparent elections. But according to Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) official Altaf Ahmad, these technology solutions will first be tested in the 2018 by-elections and unless 100% accuracy is shown, these will not be implemented.

Additionally, online voting had been considered for overseas Pakistanis, in connection with the voting right granted to them in 2013. However, according to a story on Geo’s website, this solution too will not be implemented for the 2018 elections.

Other efforts to incorporate tech directly in the polling process have been made by the ECP, though.

The introduction of the Results Transmission System Android app, which adds geographical coordinates and time-stamps to votes that are transmitted to the ECP to ensure transparency, is one of them.

On the other hand, the prohibition on cell phones inside the polling stations is a measure that acknowledges the power of technology and its potential misuse in the elections.

In spite of it all, this may be the first time such technologically-charged elections are taking place in the country, including both the polling day and the campaign season.

The use of social media has been widespread throughout the election campaign, especially by the citizens themselves who have used it as a forum for discussion and debate.

The Jamal Leghari incident is a clear example of growing political awareness. In the mobile video, voters from Dera Ghazi Khan were seen grilling their tribal chief who had allegedly turned up after five years to canvass votes for his preferred candidate.

Hasan Naser Khan, Editor PakVoices at Bytes for All Pakistan, described the video as unprecedented because feudal lords such as Leghari are not usually questioned in this manner.

“Smartphones hold people accountable,” he said, while also acknowledging the demerits of internet trolling.

Hopefully, this isn’t the end of it. The 21st century is marked by a tech boom and newer and better methods are continuously being established.

We could potentially be looking at Blockchain as a new form of online voting, which offers a possible solution to avoid tech-based systems for polls from being corrupted as it works as a public ledger where no single copy exists, making it both efficient and transparent.

Zeeshan ul Hassan Usmani, an eminent Data Science Consultant, said he would highly recommend the ECP to look into Blockchain.

“(The ECP) could test it for delayed polls on NA-60 and NA-103 to benchmark the system and learn its advantages,” he said. “The technical challenges can be overcome with right technical and intellectual capital.”

He said given the advantages of Blockchain technology, Pakistani authorities should pilot it sooner than later.

Considering such continuous advancements, Pakistan has an opportunity to improve its elections process with the help of technology. After all, technology has demonstrated its potential to mitigate illiteracy with awareness and corruption with accountability in Pakistan’s 2018 election campaign.

 

Maham Zahid is a student of National University of Sciences and Technology

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