Local government polls seem imminent. But will they be independent?
No doubt local governments (LGs) have been one of the most neglected in the country and the successive democratic governments have refrained from holding polls. And, whenever the LG polls were held, there was an army dictator in power who used the system for his own benefit.
The democratic governments were always reluctant to forgo power and the control on financial resources they enjoyed. They feared LGs would have to focus on legislative work and the development funds would be passed on to the local representatives.
Considered the most important tier of democratic governance in the developed world, it is a pity that the local governments have simply not been there in Pakistan since 2009. The apex court has repeatedly taken notice of the delay and even reprimanded the provincial governments responsible for this.
It was earlier this year that the Balochistan government held local government elections in the province and took the lead. All the other three provinces -- Punjab, Sindh and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) -- are yet to hold LG polls. At one point, during last year, there were widespread rumours of mid-term polls and the demand for LG polls was termed irrelevant.
Recently, this issue has gained importance once again as the apex court has given strict deadlines. The cantonment boards are holding elections on April 25, KP has scheduled them for May 30 and Punjab and Sindh have been given the deadline to hold LG polls by September 20.
So, it appears that this will be a year of LG polls and the provincial governments will not have a choice to further linger the process. But at the same time, there are concerns that the hurriedly carried out exercise may compromise the interest of the general public. Besides, there are apprehensions that some faults with the election schemes and LG structures will harm the latter’s utility.
Ejaz Chaudhry, President, PTI Punjab, challenges the LG system introduced by the Punjab government and says it is a replica of the 1979 system introduced by Ziaul Haq. He says the councillors at that time could not take any independent decision and had to depend on bureaucrats’ approval.
The sitting Punjab government, he says, is also fond of running the system with the help of bureaucracy. "Under the Punjab LG system the authority would be vested in the MPAs. The LGs would be under compulsion to get approval of their decisions from these authorities," he says. Besides, he adds, the Punjab government has been given the powers to dissolve local governments -- which is unfair. Earlier, the power rested with the chief minister but following criticism they changed it to Punjab government.
Similarly, there are apprehensions about the LG system to be introduced in KP. Haji Adeel, Senator of ANP, is not comfortable with the idea of KP going to polls on non-party basis. He says it is unfair that the first tier of elections will be held on non-party basis and the second-tier will be held on the party basis.
Opponents of the PTI doubt that the first tier elected on non-party basis may be bribed to elect heads of local governments on party basis.
Adeel also criticises the decision to hold cantonment board elections on non-party basis and questions whether the cantonments were not part of the country.
The KP government claims it has always wanted to hold LG polls but these were delayed due to technical reasons in the past. They wanted to use biometric voting process which was not possible due to limited resources. Besides, the KP government says the delimitation process it carried out was declared valid by the Supreme Court.
Anwar Husain, Executive Director, Local Councils Association of Pakistan (LCAP), explains the KP election scheme. He tells TNS that the councillors elected on non-party basis in KP will have to join a political party within three days of their election. Once this is done, he says, they will elect the heads of LGs on non-party basis.
Anwar Hussain says the outstanding issues in Punjab and Sindh also stand resolved to a great extent. The last time elections were stayed by the court, which was not satisfied with the delimitation process carried out by the Punjab government. The court, he says, had suspected that delimitations were done by district officers in a way to support the candidates of the ruling party in the province. The difference now is that a delimitation scheme has been announced and district election commissioners given charge of the process.
Similarly, the Sindh government that demanded census before it could go ahead with the delimitation process has been intimated that the census cannot be held within a year or two. So, it should get ready for elections.
In this backdrop, there are still some issues that pose challenge to the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP). For example, the commission has complained that Punjab and Sindh have not provided them with the necessary data and material without which they could not initiate the process of delimitation.
The ECP also faces the challenge of printing around 300 million ballot papers for Punjab and about 110 million for Sindh. The printing will start after the completion of delimitation process and submission of nomination papers. It is estimated that the ECP would hardly have 20 to 25 days to print all the ballot papers for these two provinces.