Moves to buy EVM stirs controversy

Published On: February 9, 2017 07:24 AM NPT By: Kosh Raj Koirala  | @KoshRKoirala

KATHMANDU, Feb 9: As the ‘quiet’ negotiations by Chief Election Commissioner Ayodhee Prasad Yadav for the purchase of Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) start courting serious controversy, it is learnt that  Smartmatic, the company with which the negotiations are being held, was found to have a questionable background. 

While there are serious questions about the owners of the company, the Smartmatic EVMs are widely suspected of susceptibility to fraud  as they were allegedly used  to rig the Venezuela elections in 2004 in favor of Marxist candidate Hugo Chavez, WikiLeaks said.

“The Venezuelan-owned Smartmatic Corporation is a riddle both in  terms of ownership and operation, complicated by the fact that its machines have overseen several landslide (and contested) victories by President Hugo Chavez and his supporters,” reads the cable. 

The electronic voting machine company went from a small technology startup to a market player in just a few years after it participated in the August 2004 recall referendum in Venezuela. “The Smartmatic machines used in Venezuela are widely suspected of, though never proven conclusively to be, susceptible to fraud,” the cable further said.

The  UK-based company is thought to be backing out of Venezuelan electoral events, and is now focusing on other parts of world, including the United States via its subsidiary Sequoia, the WikiLeaks cable claimed. But as  controversy emerged over the possible use of Smartmatic machines in the US elections in 2016,  Smartmatic had said on its website that it will not be deploying its technology in any US county for the upcoming 2016 US Presidential elections.”

Multiple sources confirmed that Chief Election Commissioner Yadav had secretly flown to Singapore apparently with the consent of the prime minister to hold secret negotiations with officials of the Smartmatic Corporation some three months ago. A controversy surrounding the non-transparent deal to procure the EVMs from the questionable company started after Republica ran a story on Tuesday. 

Chairman of the company Lord Mark M Brown, and Vice Chairman Robert Dobler had arrived in Kathmandu on Monday to talk to the prime minister as well as other senior government officials on the EVMs purchase. Vice Chairman Dobler even demonstrated the main features and functioning of the EVM during a meeting of political party leaders called by the EC on Tuesday. 

At the function, Prime Minister Dahal did not make any efforts to hide his interest in the purchase the EVMs from the controversial company. While some lawmakers questioned  its utility in Nepal, arguing that  illiterate voters may not be able to use such a sophisticated machine without  extensive voter education, Dahal defended the bid to purchase the machines from that company. 

“When I reach different parts of the country including the remotest, people take photos with their cell phones. One should not think that Nepalis are unaware of technology,” said Dahal, adding, “So, they can easily use electronic voting machines also.” 

This was the first time a head of government himself reached the EC to see the demonstration of an EV machines and defended the company. “We never learnt about a prime minister visiting  the EC for such a trivial function. There must be some interest behind it,” said a retired election commissioner on condition of anonymity. 

The visit of senior officials of  Smartmatic to Kathmandu at the invitation of the EC itself has come into controversy as other commissioners and senior officials at the EC were not aware of such an invitation. The statements of Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal in public forums that the government is ready to provide even over Rs 2 billion to procure the EVMs has given further ground to suspect possible non-transparent deals.

The EC is said to be preparing to finalize the deal with the company within the next 15 days. Sources said  CEC Yadav, who was appointed to the post under the Maoist quota, has entrusted his close confidante at the EC Laxmi Yadav with the responsibility to finalize preparations for the deal. The EC has already asked the government to release the necessary budget to purchase the logistics required.

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