This coming Thursday may give a hint of what the opposition has warned would happen in 2019 if the government goes ahead with its plan to use electronic voting machines.
Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC) spokesperson, Moeti Mohwasa, says that the opposition collective will not be participating in an EVM demonstration session scheduled for Thursday at Fairground Holdings in Gaborone. A press statement from the government says that alongside a team of experts from the Bharat Electronics Limited, the Independent Electoral Commission will conduct a demonstration session on how EVMs with a Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail system work. The statement extends an invitation to political party representatives, Information Technology experts, political analysts, academics, media as well as civil society to attend.
One quarter of UDC (the Botswana Congress Party) has instituted a court case against the Public Procurement and Asset Disposal Board to stop the procurement from Bharat, an IT company that is owned by the Indian government. BCP’s case is that the Electoral Act provides for the use of a “ballot paper” and not an EVM. Mohwasa says that the EVM matter is before the High Court and his party sees no reason to participate in the Thursday demonstration.
“For that reason, we are not going to attend that demonstration. We have voiced our opposition to an act of parliament that authorises the use of EVMs and we want the issue to be resolved through a court of law,” he says.
The press statement also invites a special group of IT experts. The second part reads: “The demo session will offer an opportunity for those with the know how to disrupt, hack & compromise the secure performance of EVMs to do so. All those with the technical capability to hack the EVM are invited to come forward and register with the Project Coordinating Unit by end of business on Monday 15th May 2017.”
It is clear what point the government wants to make with this invitation and what mental calculations it has made. It also clear that the controversy over the use of the machines will not go away any time soon. Thursday will be the second time that Bharat and IEC hold a public demonstration on how EVMs work. The first demonstration was at Tlotlo Hotel in Gaborone last year and didn’t incorporate the VVPAT feature. Opposition parties attended but what seemed odd was that none of their representatives were IT experts. Explaining this oddity, Mohwasa said that while opposition parties have members with such expertise, they know better than to publicly show their political allegiance because they would not get lucrative government tenders that matter for purposes of real economic empowerment. Last week, Sunday Standard quoted a leaked transcript of the recent Botswana Democratic Party national council on plans to “award local government tenders to BDP members in a bid to strengthen the party war chest in the run-up to the elections.”
This raises the question of what the consequences UDC members who may be able to hack into EVMs may suffer. Researchers at the University of Michigan in the United States have hacked an Indian-made EVM and thereafter wrote an academic paper about the hacking that is available online.
On the other hand, the message that the EVM Coordinator and former IEC Secretary, Gabriel Seeletso, spread in a national tour last year is that the EVMs that the government plans to procure cannot be hacked. To some that is a hard sell because no computer system is 100 percent secure and computer manufacturers don’t ever make such guarantee. Interestingly, the VVPAT feature that the opposition has insisted on has itself been proven to be manipulable. In the face of all this, some European nations have banned EVMs because they compromise the credibility of their electoral systems.
It is not just the opposition that is jittery about EVMs. In an interview with Botswana Guardian, former president Sir Ketumile Masire, also spoke out and against this technology for the first time. Masire, whom some credible scholars credit with making Botswana what it is today, sees this issue with a third eye. On the basis of the latter, he would naturally be gravely concerned about the country’s democracy being “destroyed” as he put it in the paper. The import of his statements is that the issue is no longer about whether or not there are plans to steal the 2019 elections but whether an election can be deemed credible if there is a huge dark cloud hanging over it.
“If at any stage, the electoral process seems flawed in the eyes of citizens, the entire exercise would not only lose credibility, but the legitimacy of a government that emerges out of that process would be eroded as well,” the former president is quoted as saying.
While the position has not been formally expressed, some UDC leaders have publicly called for a boycott of the 2019 elections if EVMs are used. Some diplomats are said to favour such position. In expressing his opposition to EVM use last year, Selebi Phikwe West MP, Dithapelo Keorapetse, darkly vowed that he was ready to “pay” with his life. The chilling words were never parsed because at this point, there is absolutely no public conversation about the possibility of an EVM-occasioned civil strife farther down the road. Masire didn’t elaborate but the second part of his point about the legitimacy of a government that emerges out of an EVM electoral process being eroded is that some people ÔÇô especially those in the opposition, will not recognise the power and authority of that government and flatly refuse to obey whatever orders it issues.