Election and participation

Over the years there have been debates about how to elect local goverments — through direct or indirect election — and how far those made part of this system are true representatives of the public

The local government system in any country is perceived to be one where ordinary people have direct access to those they elect. In Pakistan too, the importance of local governments cannot be ignored even if there has been no continuity or consistency about the institution.

Local governments are provided for in the Constitution which calls for their setting up and independent functioning. It also suggests that adequate representation of marginalised groups like women, peasants and workers be assured. The purpose here is to engage all people in decision making and to give them a chance to bring up issues that would have been ignored otherwise.

However, over the years there has been disagreement on how to elect them – through direct or indirect election – and whether those made part of this system are true representatives of these groups or not. The seats have been reserved in electoral units but do the deserving candidates occupy them?

Article 32 of the Constitution states: “The State shall encourage Local Government institutions composed of elected representatives of the areas concerned and in such institutions special representation will be given to peasants, workers and women.” Similarly, Article 34 of the Constitution suggests that steps will be taken to ensure full participation of women in all spheres of national life.

The reservation of seats may be seen as an example of positive discrimination in the favour of the marginalised whose voices are hardly heard in the power corridors. Apart from the groups mentioned above, the youth and members of various minorities have also been provided for.

Farooq Tariq, who represents Pakistan Kissan Rabta Committee, says that most of the times the allies of political parties are nominated to seats reserved for peasants and workers. Once the general seats are filled those forming local governments at different levels select their supporters regardless of whether they have any history of working as labourers or being peasants.

Tariq recalls that during Musharraf’s regime, reserved seats for marginalised groups were filled through direct election. This paved the way for many genuine representatives to join local governments. “When you get the position with people’s votes you are answerable to them; otherwise you are not”, he says. He says representation of labourers and peasants is highly important because this way they can raise demands for improvement in working conditions, rationalization of minimum wages, registration for social security benefits, and protection against exploitation by their employers at the local level. These representatives can efficiently carry out local surveys and hold negotiations with employers as state representatives.

Those ‘elected’ to reserved seats through indirect election have to agree to whatever those selecting them suggest and do not have anindependent voice.

Coming to women’s participation in local governments, Anwar Hussain, Executive Director, Local Councils Association of the Punjab (LCAP), says women elected against reserved seats are sometimes not even invited to important meetings. They are asked instead to mark their attendance later on. He also says those occupying reserved seats through indirect election have to agree to whatever those selecting them for the job suggest and do not have an independent voice. He laments that instead of giving power to women members of the local governments their representation in terms of percentage has been reduced over time.

He also suggests that more women should be encouraged and supported to contest general seats in addition to occupying the reserved seats. He says it will not be easy but things will change with time. His suggestion is in line with the condition imposed by the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) on political parties to give at least five percent of the tickets they are contesting to women candidates. However, the political parties tend mostly to give tickets to women on seats where they have no hope of winning.

Kashif Nawab, an activist and a Lahore-based representative of the Christian community, is a supporter of direct elections on reserved seats. However, he says, it becomes difficult for the candidates when a constituency is too large physically. He welcomes the provision that minority members will be elected in the Punjab through direct vote this time and their selection will not be dependent on the whims of those winning the general seats. Nawab says the minorities’ representatives are not given development funds or any say in significant decisions —which is against the very spirit of making them part of the system. Historically, he says, only the minority community members in electoral units having minority voter concentrations have been given funds.

The current government has also announced direct elections for heads of tehsil councils, district councils and mayors. This means that all eligible voters in a metropolitan city like Lahore will be the Electoral College for the mayor. The rule has its supporters as well as those who feat that this will work in favour of more affluent candidates.

Zahid Islam, the Sangat Development Foundation (SDF) executive director, believes that election to seats where the Electoral College is small, should be direct; where the electoral college is large, he favours indirect election. He also supports the idea of closed party lists and proportional representation on reserved seats, meaning the reserved seats should be shared according the number of general seats won by a party. Many candidates, he says, will be excluded if they do not have the resources to cover large constituencies. He says proportional representation is better as indirect elections lead to selling of votes and use of pressure tactics to buy loyalties.

Islam says that women councillors are frequently asked to come up with projects for women like distributing sewing machines but not consulted in general decision making, which is wrong.

The author is a staff member and can be reached at     shahzada.irfan@gmail.com

Election and participation