Despite the repeated promises of the current government and the stern insistence of the Supreme Court of Pakistan, Balochistan is the only province where local body elections have been held. But the process, and outcome, of these elections has been far from satisfactory.
According to data available from Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP), 20% of candidates withdrew their nominations before the votes were cast, 7% of seats had no candidates, and 35% had only one candidate while 3000 candidates were elected unopposed on different seats. Elections were not held in the insurgency-affected districts of Awaran and Kech due to all seats being either vacant or unopposed.
The process in Balochistan started in December 2013 when 18,000 candidates contested the elections in 4600 constituencies. During the course of elections 2,776 polling stations were declared “highly sensitive” while 1,581 were labelled “sensitive” out of 5,718 polling stations in Balochistan. To ensure security during the process, 50,000 policemen, F.C. personnel and 5,325 army soldiers stood guard on Election Day.
A report published by Democracy Reporting International in 2014 severely castigated these elections in Balochistan, stating, “Returning officers lacked training and oversight by the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) and necessary election materials were not always available. Not enough electoral information was gathered and made public. No official results numbers were published. Furthermore, there was a lack of scrutiny from the media, no observation by civil society and an unclear system of dispute resolution.”
Other provinces have been delaying the local body elections one way or the other. The ECP recently announced that local bodies elections in Sindh, Punjab and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa will be held on September 20 this year. Following the announcement, all three provincial governments have excused that they can’t print the required number of ballot papers by the allotted deadline.
Pakistan has had a rather tumultuous history with local governments. The seeds of decentralisation were sown by Viceroy Lord Ripon who, in 1882, envisioned that the citizens of India should be able to redress their grievances at the local level, creating an efficient, effective and corruption-less service. These Urban Councils and District Boards in Urban and Rural areas respectively—constituted under British Law—were functioning until 1959.
But it took Pakistan more than a decade to come up with a local government vision of its own. The first local government experiment in Pakistan was conducted after more than a decade of its formation and a military coup. Christened as “Basic Democracy”, it consisted of primary governing units set up to conduct local affairs; members of these units were elected by constituencies of 800–1,000 adults.
This system was, however, not introduced exclusively for public good and ulterior motives behind its formation soon came to the fore. In 1960, these Basic Democrats were required to vote by a secret ballot on a brief yet slickly phrased question: “Have you confidence in President Field Marshal Mohammad Ayub Khan, Hilal-i-Jurat?” In other words, it was meant simply to prop up artificial support for a dictator.
In December 1971, ‘Basic Democracy’ was laid to rest by Mr. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. In the 1973 constitution, the subject of local governments was left to the provinces to decide. Legislation in this regard was completed in 1979.
By that time, another Dictator was in the driving seat and he allowed the establishment of Local bodies. Elections to all local councils in both rural and urban areas were held simultaneously on the basis of adult franchise and under the aegis of independent provincial election authorities.
The second local government experiment continued as long as Dictator Zia was in the saddle and was scrapped by subsequent political governments. After the democratic dispensation had been overthrown in 1999, another dictator, General Pervez Musharraf, arrived with lofty goals for the country.
In 2001, Local Governments were instituted under the Devolution Plan. Local governments were given more responsibility than in previous plans and the rural-urban divide was abolished. The third wave of local government functioned only till its benefactor—Dictator Musharraf—was in power.
Apart from the fact that all three local government enactments took place under Dictatorial regimes, another common feature was the non-party basis on which local government polls were held.
Local governments are considered a bedrock of participatory democracy in the modern world. Local politics provides a platform for budding politicians to provide public service, make a name for themselves and if they are good enough, get elevated to regional or national politics. Efficient functioning of local governments is necessary for smooth functioning of basic services for the citizenry.
Successive political governments have ignored the local government setups, until now. During the current government, the Supreme Court of Pakistan had to step in and order the provinces to arrange local elections at the earliest possible dates. Till now, only Balochistan has been able to complete the process of local elections.
Balochistan, despite being Pakistan’s largest province, has witnessed very few trouble-free years. Five different waves of insurgency have involved the province and the last wave is on currently on the wane. The large, uninhabited area rich in mineral wealth is being controlled by Pakistan’s security forces directly and indirectly. The local body elections have been called out as an attempt by the establishment to co-opt politically active individuals, to be used later against separatist elements.
Previously a part of the separatist movement, National Party (NP) of Balochistan is currently running the Provincial government in partnership with PML (N) and Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party (PkMAP). During the polls, there were tensions between the coalition parties, particularly on the issue of Mayoral candidate in Quetta.
On one side was PkMAP and its ally National Party and pitted on the other side were seven political parties. In the end, the Mayoral seat was won by PkMAP while the deputy mayor belongs to combined opposition parties. In his own constituency, PkMAP supermo Mahmood Khan Achakzai made an electoral alliance with hard-line right-wing party JUI-Nazriyati, just to spite Maulana Fazl-ur-Rehamn of JUI (F).
It is yet to be seen if completion of local elections heralds a step forward towards service delivery and improved governance, but at least the formality has been completed.
The author is a freelance writer based in Lahore.
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