Grassroots controversy

AJK High Court’s landmark verdict about local government elections, if implemented, will pave the way for successful and inclusive democracy

Grassroots controversy

In a landmark judgment, the Azad Jammu and Kashmir High Court on March 6 directed the government to ensure holding of local bodies (LB) elections in the AJK within the next five months i.e. till September 2015 and appoint the Election Commissioner within one month on a writ petition filed by advocate Raja Sajjad Ahmed Khan in December 2013.

The verdict was widely hailed across the Azad Kashmir: political parties and civil society termed it a victory for the people as it would pave the way to transfer of financial resources and administrative power to grassroots level from Muzaffarabad, seat of the government. The powerful vernacular media regarded the judgment as a beginning of the judicial activism. Most of the newspapers in their editorials called upon the government for implementation of the verdict in letter and spirit if the government is sincere to strengthen the grassroots political institutions and want to ensure citizen participation in the development of the region.

Contrary to the public enthusiasm, it seems the AJK government has decided to lay low for a while. By keeping its cards close to chest, it has engendered huge confusion about its intentions to hold local bodies polls. However, insiders believed the government is not in a mood to conduct elections and might appeal in the Supreme Court against the HC ruling. The government plea seems quite flawed. It says that electoral rolls need to be revised while the required funds are not available to do so. Interestingly, the government had used same electoral rolls in the previous assembly elections and intends to hold upcoming elections, due in next year in July, on the same voter lists. Yet it is looking for updated voter rolls merely for LB polls, which is largely considered a lame excuse.

The history of local bodies in Azad Kashmir goes back to1960s when the basic democracies system was introduced by then President Ayub Khan in Pakistan. However, a more effective and vibrant local body system came into being in 1979 under the military rule and remained functional until 1996.

Subsequently, the AJK Legislative Assembly had enacted the Azad Jammu and Kashmir Act, 1990 to provide a constitutional/legal cover to the local government system. It also set a four-year tenure for the local bodies. Since 1996, instead of holding local bodies’ elections as required by the law, successive governments were invariably appointing administrators on political basis to run local councils. It is not only a sheer violation of the constitution, but it also deprives the citizens of their right to elect their representatives for a decentralised governance setup.

During the Pervez Musharraf’s tenure, district government elections were twice held in the four provinces of Pakistan, but the AJK government refused to adopt the district government system. A few exceptions apart, almost all major political leaders are promoting their kith and kin in local politics and not willing to give space to party workers. It is common perception that if local bodes elections are held it might open up space for political workers who can challenge the family politics in AJK. Therefore, almost all political big guns are averse to the idea of local bodies, including Prime Minister Chaudhary Abdul Majeed.

Pakistan’s transition towards democracy in 2008 has resulted in many positive achievements as the provinces have much more internal autonomy and the state structure is gradually decentralised, thereby providing impetus to the devolution of power and establishment of democratic norms. However, as far as Azad Jammu and Kashmir is concerned, it has made little impact in the region.

A comparative study shows that when the local bodies system was in place, the development was far more brisk, planned and constructive. Additionally, today’s several political stalwarts are the byproduct of the local bodies.

However, it is a matter of fact that the establishment of local governments in AJK is not part of current political or social discourse. Almost all the previous governments of Azad Kashmir had made public commitments to hold local government elections but never fulfilled their pledge. Even revival of the local bodies was part of the ruling People’s Party’s manifesto. Its senior minister Chaudhary Yasin had set a deadline for the elections last year, but never lived up to his commitment as his own partycabinet colleagues were not willing to renege their administrative and financial powers to local bodies representatives. The absence of the local bodies system provided them an opportunity to spend money and distribute jobs without upholding the principle of merit or any fear of accountability.

Failure to hold local government elections has weakened democratic institutions and slowed down the process for the induction of new leadership in the political process. It also paved the way for the family politics in the area. Therefore, the sense of participatory governance has long evaporated from the political horizon. High unemployment and frustration has increased vulnerability of youth falling prey to radicalisation

It is widely believed that the revival of local governments would pave the way for successful and inclusive democracy in the area. It would ultimately improve accountability and governance in AJK. Doubtlessly, it is a huge challenge to motivate political leadership, particularly the current government, to hold local elections. A grass-roots public mobilisation is required to push the government to conduct elections within stipulated time. Advocacy can generate incentives for the AJK government and political leadership to move towards instituting local governments. Former councilors and particularly marginalised community such as youth and women can be a natural constituency for such a campaign.

Nearly 24 years have passed since last local bodies elections. During these years huge changes have been made in the concept and role of local governments. Nowadays, local governments are playing a vital role to face the challenges in the areas of disasters, women empowerment and efficient service delivery. Therefore, AJK local bodies law also required a couple of basic amendments to cater to the today’s needs and absorb modern concepts of the local government.

Grassroots controversy