Battlefield Punjab

January 9, 2022

Punjab will be a major political arena in the upcoming local government elections

Battlefield Punjab

Like general elections, the Punjab is going to be the main battlefield in the forthcoming local government elections scheduled to be held in April and May this year. The mainstream political parties as well as some new and emerging pressure groups will be actively participating in the polls.

The Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N) appears to be as formidable in the Punjab as it has been since its emergence on the national and provincial political scene in the 1990s. The Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI), the ruling party at the Centre and in the Punjab is the main challenge to the PML-N. But that’s not it. The PTI has yet to make up for what it lost in the recently concluded first phase of local government elections in its bastion, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP).

The Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), which returned to power four time since its inception in 1967 in Lahore, has also started performing differently. The PPP’s candidate managed to bag six times more votes in the recently held by-election in NA-133 Lahore than it had in the last general election in the same constituency. Having done relatively well in local government elections from 1979 under Gen Zia ul Haq to 2000 under Gen Pervez Musharraf, the party can be quite confident. However, the odds are now stacked against the PPP in the province. Its popularity has gone down ever since the reins were taken by Asif Ali Zardari following the assassination of Benazir Bhutto.

Unlike the recent local government elections in KP where the ruling PTI faced a humiliating defeat at the hands of none other than the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam Fazlur Rehman (JUI-F), the Punjab is perhaps poised to witness an electoral surprise by Tehreek-i-Labbaik (TLP). Once proscribed after the group’s indulgence in religious extremism and its blatant challenge to the writ of the state, the TLP stands rehabilitated and is likely to create a situation that will be far more worrying than the one set in motion by the JUI-F in the KP. The PTI defeat in KP has been interpreted as a victory for retrogressive forces despite the fact that the JUI-F has been a key player in the national political mainstream. This is perhaps so on account of the Taliban phenomenon in the KP and across the border in Afghanistan. In the Punjab, the TLP threatens to be the bid spoiler for the PML-N, which has long enjoyed a hold on the province. The PPP doesn’t like much the TLP for giving new heights to religious extremism. Initially, the only taker for this religious group appeared to be the PTI, which suggested a political alliance ahead of the election, if need be. Soon afterwards it chose to withdraw the proscription of the group that claimed credit for putting the PTI on the mat when it challenged the government’s writ across the Punjab and urban Sindh. Interestingly, some PML-N leaders too have held meetings with TLP leaders since their release from jail.

Local democracy provides a window for change to allow local development through efficient utilisation of state resources and effective public service delivery.

Local government elections under political dispensations are important despite fears of the opposition taking control of some of the local government institutions. Unlike municipal set ups under military rule, these do not merely provide a democratic façade.

One of the reasons the forthcoming local government elections can be different is the direct election to the offices of mayors and tehsil chairmen. This may allow opportunities for the youth to learn leadership skills and serve delivery – avenues that they are seldom able to explore now that student unions are dysfunctional.

The KP local government elections may also have started a trend of accepting unfavourable election results. This is all the more encouraging given the claims by several government leaders that the incumbent Election Commission is biased against it. Should this trend persist in the Punjab, it will mark a refreshing change. Political forces can always do better by resorting to soul-searching following an electoral loss than crying foul. Further, if devolution of powers is ensured in letter and spirit, it will only strengthen democracy in the country.

The writer has been a journalist for over three decades working for various newspapers, TV channels and digital media organisations   including The News.

Battlefield Punjab