The Election Commission of Pakistan has finally put its foot down and fixed January 30, 2014 for holding the local body elections in Punjab. The Commission has already issued the election schedule.
Still, the provincial government is busy in litigation and has moved the Supreme Court with a plea for holding the local elections on non-party basis -- seeking the reversal of the verdict given by the Lahore High Court on this issue.
The PML-N’s reluctance in holding the local body elections is for the simple reason that the ruling party’s bigwigs do not wish to share the spoils of power with the elected people at the local level. Under the devolved local government system, introduced by Gen Pervez Musharraf between 2002 and 2008, the Punjab government used to provide Rs130 billion annually to the local governments for their expenditures. During Shahbaz Sharif’s rule (2008-2013), these funds were drastically slashed to Rs30 billion annually. Sharif himself spent the remaining funds of more than Rs400 billion mostly on his discretion.
Following the May 12 general election, the Punjab government has given three different dates for holding the local body elections. First, it announced to hold the elections in October, then agreed to the date of November 27 when the Supreme Court insisted on a timeframe, later it again asked for postponement till December 7 -- but again backed out.
The last local body elections were held in Punjab in 2005 and were due to be held soon after the completion of the tenure in December 2009. But the government ran the municipal bodies through pliant civil servants during this period.
The much-touted Charter of Democracy binds the PML-N to hold the local body elections on party-basis, but the newly-enforced Local Government Act of Punjab 2013, passed on August 22, 2013 made it mandatory that these elections would be held on non-party basis. On November 7, the Lahore High Court struck down this clause and ordered to hold the polls on party-basis.
At the time of verdict, Punjab’s Senior Minister Rana Sanaullah announced that the government would not challenge this verdict, but almost a month later the provincial government went into appeal against the decision in the Supreme Court, where the case is now pending. Now, Rana Sanaullah says party-based local elections are not manageable.
The PML-N’s fear of the party-based elections stem from the fact that unprecedented price-hike of essential commodities during the last six months and ongoing loadshedding of natural gas for CNG stations and factories seem to have made the incumbent government quite unpopular -- thus casting shadows on its prospects in the local polls. In order to please the voters, the federal government has now hastily announced a new Rs100 billion loan scheme for the unemployed youth despite the fact the kitty is empty and the circular debt of the power sector has again ballooned up to Rs200 billion.
Holding of the local elections on non-party basis suits the PML-N because the party holds power in the province and will be in a position to lure or force the independently-elected councillors to join the ruling party. The new law has made the municipal authorities entirely dependent on the provincial government. Under the law, the MPAs will have representation in the local bodies for the use of development funds, thus further eroding the authority of the elected local representatives and paving the way for the ruling party’s interference in municipal affairs. The subjects of education and health have also been taken out of the purview of local governments and given to separate authorities to be run by the people appointed by the provincial government.
The PML-N is sensitive about keeping the local bodies in its clutches as it is familiar with their significance since the mid-1980s -- when the party took birth from the assemblies elected on non-party basis. The PML-N, which was not a popular party at the mass level at that time, is alleged to have massively rigged the 1991 local bodies elections in Punjab and ruthlessly misused the local body funds to organise its functions and extend patronage to its local leaders.
Following the dismissal of the PML-N government in 1993, the PPP-PML-J coalition government had launched several inquiries into embezzlement of the local funds during the previous regime, but these were hushed up for political reasons afterwards.
The existing political environment is quite different from the one in the early 1990s when the PML-N was the blue-eyed party of the powerful President Ghulam Ishaq Khan as well as the military establishment. At that time, media was not as free as today and electronic media was under government’s control. Now the dynamics have changed. It won’t be easy for the PML-N to carry out massive rigging in the local body elections without inviting huge protest or even an agitation. So the utmost effort is being made to hold elections on non-party basis with no regard to their negative implications.
The local elections held on non-party basis, as in the past, are likely to sharpen ethnic and sectarian divisions within the society and politics. In the absence of mobilisation on political basis, affiliations and allegiances towards clans (biradaris) and religious sects grow stronger as witnessed in the 1985 non-party general election and the six local body elections held in 1979, 1983, 1987, 1991, 2002 and 2005. Each of these elections led to marginalisation of ethnic and religious minorities, and resultantly their virtual exclusion from decision-making.
What the country needs today is mobilisation of people on public issues such as efficient system of dispute-resolution at the local level (lower judiciary), service-delivery (provision of clean drinking water, healthcare sanitation, education etc) and overall good governance. These objectives can be achieved through contest between political parties with clear-cut programmes as it involves the participation of provincial governments, too. Election held on non-party basis will thwart these goals and further lead to fissures in the society.
The PML-N has already divided the unit of a union council into six small wards reverting to the 1979s local body system of Gen Ziaul Haq. The wards’ system has been created with a mala fide intent as the provincial government can influence an election at the ward level through the use of local administration, especially the police. This strategy was employed by Gen Ayub Khan in the 1960s and later by Gen Ziaul Haq in the 1970s and 1980s, but led to increased local rivalries for the leadership and rise in the crime rate. In 2001, the system was reformed by introducing multiple-constituency system in the form of a union council.
Unfortunately, like the past governments, the PML-N in Punjab is viewing the local government elections as a tool for creating its patronage system and local satraps who could serve the bosses at the top. Monopolising power and control over state resources seems to be the main concern of the rulers instead of solving people’s problems at the local level. Yet, election on January 30 to more than 52,000 seats of councillors and mayors may unleash its own dynamics, much beyond the intended control of the rulers.