Local body elections: Reclaiming civilian space

Voter turnout would be an indicator of the interest and faith of common people in these elections

Things seem to be changing as the season of local body elections starts. Even though only yesterday it seemed like the expose on the Imran-Reham divorce had overtaken all of the media space. Seemingly, the attention (not interest) has been diverted towards the third tier of governance – and rightly so – with the first phase of local body elections kicking off in Punjab and Sindh.

The history of devolution of power in Pakistan, both vertical and horizontal, has always been bleak. Largely, local governments, if any, have been formed previously by the military rulers and that too for the cause of earning legitimacy.

Those at the helm of affairs have always been reluctant to devolve power and hold elections (Article 140A of the Constitution). Lately this reluctance and the visible fear of devolution could be witnessed in the dilly-dallying tactics used by Punjab and Sindh. To their embarrassment, the ‘smaller provinces’ have already held local government elections, the first being Balochistan.

Elections in Punjab and Sindh are finally taking place in three phases, starting from October 31 till early December this year. Thanks to the persistence of the apex court. However, the saddest part of the story is that the true spirit of devolution is missing again. In theory, we talk about the idea of local legislature where the local elected bodies would be empowered to such an extent to be able to legislate for themselves. Contrary to that, in practice, the actual local governments created as a result of the ongoing elections are going to be toothless. Crippled as they would be, the ‘power of the purse’ would still remain in Karachi and Lahore essentially. What in the name of ‘checks and balances’ has been introduced would actually render the local governments devoid of the control over the development budgets.

And as the bad gets worse, reserved seats would generally be allotted to the near and dear ones to oblige them. No one would ask anything about the merit of the indirect election of the women, workers, youth and non-Muslim members in a Union Council for instance. And predominantly, the higher-ups have already given their word for the seats of mayor and deputy mayor to their blue-eyed boys. Even before the election of chairmen, their panels (chairman and vice chairman as joint candidates) would know that only the personal favorite lobby of the MPAs and MNAs would have a good shot at the seat of mayor and deputy mayor. 

Faith in the impact of these elections has been further lessened because of the lack of availability of alternative to the incumbent political parties in their respective strongholds. For instance, in Punjab, generally speaking, PML-N, PTI and Independents are in the run. It’s a known fact that the incumbent party has an edge over the elections held under it. Hence, PML-N has that edge. And also, the fact of the matter is that PTI, in Punjab, has not made such resonance at the grassroots level. Contrarily, PML-N of course has a visible presence. Furthermore, the independent candidates, for obvious reasons, would also join the ruling PML-N after winning. In short, the incumbent party enjoys the upper hand in their respective strongholds. And that also should hold true for the ruling Peoples’ Party in Sindh. 

We should also not forget the visible trend of nepotism in ticket allocations. So the emergence of the ‘new’ leadership doesn’t seem too likely. A ticker in a TV channel saying ‘maamay, chaachay, bhateejay, bhaanjay aur betay’ beautifully captured the reality.

Voter turnout would be an indicator of the interest and faith of common people in these elections. And sadly not a large percentage of it is expected. 

And finally, Imran Khan’s rigging-harangue would essentially say that out precious vote fell prey to rigging and we’d be asking ourselves: Why should we take the pains of going out and vote if it is going to be stolen anyway? Instead of taking part in the election process and exercising our constitutional right of vote, we’d make peace with staying at home and stick ourselves to TV screens. Umair Javed of LUMS would probably call it the ‘Election Voyerism Day’.

Keeping in mind all the factors mentioned above, one would be compelled to conclude that all of this election jugglery has been just for the sake of optics and earning some brownie points.

Lest we get totally disappointed, it is hoped that these local government elections would be a means for the ruling parties to gauge their popularity halfway through their tenure. These elections, in fact, will give them a real reality check because no one bought the credibility of the party popularity surveys published recently. 

Granted all the ineffectiveness talk and disillusionment, one silver lining is that democracy is on the move in our beloved country. Finally.

The readers are urged to exercise their vote in the local government elections nonetheless. Their grievances are right. They may have less faith and interest in these elections because governments do not deliver and govern faithfully. However, let’s be assured that we are moving in the right direction.

Mahboob Mohsin

Mahboob Mohsin is a Political Science graduate from LUMS. Currently he is pursuing MPhil Political Science degree at Government College University Lahore. He was a part of the seventh Youth Parliament Pakistan. Follow him on Facebook. He can be reached at mahboob.mohsin.2014@gmail.com

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