On the face of it, the promulgation of the Sindh Peoples Local Government Ordinance should have signalled the promulgation of similar ordinances by the other provinces. However, it did not, because it was seen as specifically designed for the provinces’ circumstances. Instead, though it may have left the MQM placated, and the Sindh coalition in place, the reaction of the PPP’s allies was negative enough to make the survival of the coalition in doubt. That has serious implications for the impending elections, whether the local body polls mandated by the ordinance, or the general elections President Asif Zardari is suspected of wanting to put off until he gets re-elected by the present Assemblies. The parties, which have left the Sindh coalition, have been parties with an assembly presence limited to Sindh, except for the ANP and the PML-Q. With the former, the PPP is the junior partner in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa coalition, while having it as a junior partner in the centre; with the latter, it primarily has bolstered its position at the centre.Though there are a number of minorities in all provinces, Sindh is perhaps the only one where a minority, while stopping short of calling for a division of the province, is very clear that it does not share the provincial status of the majority.The MQM finds itself in a very awkward position. It needs powers that amount to those of a province without being so-called; one way would be to take provincial power, something it has never been able to do. However, that would involve governing large areas without the party’s natural constituency. Another way would be to have extensive powers in the local councils, where the MQM could achieve power. It was, perhaps, no coincidence that devolution of power to the local councils was maximised under General (retd) Pervez Musharraf, a Mohajir. But when the PPP came back to office, these councils proved a thorn in the side of the government because they provided a competing presence for the legislatures from which the party derived its power. As the other allies of the government derived their power purely from the legislatures, they did not look to the local councils for empowerment. Another problem for them is that the PPP contains an element of Sindhi nationalism. The allied parties also need to exhibit sensitivity towards this strand of opinion, and this means opposing the revival of the local bodies.Going into a general election, the PPP is not a very attractive partner. Contesting in alliance with it means being burdened with its record in office, including its deeds to maintain its alliance with the MQM. Resigning now means placing a distance between the allies and the PPP that they need. It should not be forgotten that the allies got into the Assembly by defeating PPP candidates, and are counting on doing so again. At the same time, they need to prove their nationalist credentials by opposing the ordinance. It must also not be forgotten that the resignations were not in any way impulsive or sudden. They clearly covered a number of old resentments, and thus the ordinance merely brought matters to a head. In other words, it merely provided an excuse that was already being sought.Thus far, it does not seem that the ANP or the PML-Q are doing more than leaving the Sindh coalition. Both parties are continuing their support at the centre, and there is no sign that the ANP is forcing the PPP out of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa coalition it heads. Nevertheless, while the parties’ membership of the Sindh coalition was clearly more symbolic than substantial, their departure would clearly weaken the coalitions where their contribution was more substantial, the central, in the case of the PML-Q, and that of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, in that of the ANP. This weakening would lead to a rupture if there was enough time, but since the general election is almost upon the country, the parties might be content to let matters drift until then. The PPP should be worried that its allies in Sindh have left, especially since it has formed its electoral backbone, with it winning majorities in the province’s rural areas even when it has lost the overall election. However, the confidence shown in it by the ANP and the PML-Q should be heartening.There had been considerable speculation that the purpose of holding the local body polls would have been to postpone the general election long enough for the President to obtain re-election from the present Assemblies. He had won election comfortably from them in the first place, and thus re-election would not be a problem, especially since the general election would not necessarily put in place Assemblies which would re-elect him. Re-election becomes even more important since the office confers the immunity that the PPP argues prevents the writing of any letter asking the Swiss authorities to reopen the corruption cases against him. However, if this was indeed the intention, the outcry against it has made the President, the Prime Minister and other leading party figures lose no opportunity of promising elections on time. All that is left is for some government figure to deny that there is any intention of using the local body elections, indicating that the President does not want to close this particular option.Even if it is not closed, there remains the fact that the country is now in the awkward situation of one province possessing a new local councils law, and three not. Another complication has been the fact that local government has been devolved back to the provinces under the Eighteenth Amendment. Actually, while local government was always a provincial subject, to obtain uniformity of legislation, the provinces had all used the constitutional provision whereby the federal legislature was empowered to make laws for all provinces making a request that it do so. The provinces have been left to legislate new laws, especially after the withdrawal of the protection given to the Musharraf system. Though all provinces have some draft law or the other, only Sindh has got a new law actually in place. This is a far cry from the original plan of all provinces promulgating laws, and then holding countrywide elections on the same day.If the general elections are held on time, there is no reason why local body polls cannot be held. That is, if the President is adamant on claiming the credit for this. Indeed, as the Election Commission of Pakistan is mandated to hold these elections, it might prefer the convenience of holding them on the same day. Even if the two elections are held separately, the polling stations and the polling staff are almost certainly going to be the same. There seems no reason why general elections need to be delayed to allow local body polls first, unless it is to allow the President an electoral college he can rely on.It is the federal government’s responsibility to ensure that the country’s local councils are elected according to a uniform law; and while politicians will take part, and politics will inevitably be played, the federal government must avoid this, especially when there is no higher purpose than an individual’s convenience.
The writer is a veteran journalist and founding member as well as Executive Editor of TheNation.Email: email@example.com