LAHORE – All TV channels reported on Thursday that the Punjab cabinet has decided to hold the local elections on a non-party basis. However, a late night clarification by a government spokesman said that no decision on party-based or party-less elections has been taken and that the matter has been left to the Punjab Assembly. Whether the Punjab chief minister really gives so much importance to the provincial legislature – a house he seldom attends and his law minister says his boss doesn’t have time to waste – will become clear in the weeks ahead. Apparently, it’s difficult to believe that the chief minister, who likes to take decisions by himself even on the smallest issues, will leave such an important matter to the house. However, in case the cabinet, or the assembly, decides to hold the local elections on a non-party basis, it will be violation of the PML-N’s commitment made in its manifesto, announced by Mian Nawaz Sharif before the 2008 elections. The manifesto says in categorical terms the polls for the lowest tier of the government would be held on a party basis.The violation of the commitment on the mode of elections, if decided, will not be a healthy sign as history bears testimony that such a course is always pursued with ulterior motives. Party-based elections enable the party in power to measure its popularity. Since the PML-N has been ruling the Punjab for more than four years and it claims to have rendered the best possible services to the people of the country’s biggest province, this would be the right way to enter the arena. Voters’ response to the development works done by the government would make it crystal clear to what extent they had liked or disliked the chief minister’s initiatives. If a decision is ultimately taken in favour of party-less elections, it will show as if the Punjab government is not confident that the hundreds of billions of rupees it spent in the name of development and betterment of the province will win the hearts and minds of the electorate. Also, it means the government is unsure how the people of South Punjab will react in elections when strong rivals are trying their best to oust the PML-N from the region calling for the status of a separate province. Those who want the Punjab government to switch to such a divisive and flawed system know that various past rulers successfully exploited it to their benefit.In the non-party system, the election candidates are supposed to not have any political affiliations. They win or lose because of their personal standing. Political parties keep themselves away from the process, although secretly they do for their favourites whatever they can.But the governments in power try to herd all the winners to their camp, no matter what their political affiliations. To win their support, carrot and stick is used. More often than not, it is the carrot that works. This strategy makes it possible for the sitting government to have a network of its supporters and sympathisers across the province. And a whole lot of ‘conformists’ working at the district, tehsil or even at lower levels makes the working of the provincial governments easier.In case the provincial government and the functionaries of the local government don’t have the same wavelength, there is an atmosphere of confrontation. This was experienced after the 2008 elections. Almost all district and tehsil nazims in Punjab were supporters of Gen Musharraf and they were unwilling to cooperate with the PML-N’s provincial government. As a result, the writ of the provincial government was badly affected. The state of non-cooperation continued till the LB office-bearers served out their term.Keeping that situation in sight, the Punjab government apparently wants to bring in only those people at the lower tiers who are ready to join hands with them. The system of local government has been absent from Punjab – as also in other provinces – for more than two years. After the 18th amendment, it’s the provincial governments’ responsibility to tailor a system according to their requirements. On Thursday, the provincial cabinet discussed the system that was introduced by Gen Zia in 1979. The deputy commissioners and mayors will be back as the new system takes effect after the completion of all legal formalities. A similar decision has been taken by the KP government. The Sindh government has yet to give a new system as the PPP and the MQM have serious differences over the subject. The Balochistan government is expected to go by whatever system is followed by Sindh.When Gen Zia held the party-less local elections in 1979, a large number of PPP supporters had taken part in them as per party policy. They wanted to have control over the lower tiers to make it difficult for the military ruler to prolong his rule or use the network for his own political interests.Many of them used the “Awam Dost” term for themselves, which was a clear message to the ordinary voter that they belonged to the PPP. When they were elected, Gen Zia got them disqualified through special tribunals. The local governments remained fully under the control of Gen Zia as long as he remained in power.In the local elections held by the PML after the death of Gen Zia, most of the winners easily changed their loyalties and became friends with the ruling party. Another party-less local election will also bring a similar lot to the fore.