FeaturedNationalVOLUME 16 ISSUE # 20

Why political parties are averse to holding local polls

Prime Minister Imran Khan has directed the chief ministers of Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to take steps to hold local government elections. However, the ruling party in the Centre and the provinces can delay the elections as much as possible, because the time is not suitable for it. The situation in Punjab is serious, as recent by-elections showed. The Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) will have to cut prices of food and essentials and announce incentives for the common people in the upcoming budget for any chance of winning the local polls.

Prime Minister Imran Khan had promised to empower people through local governments when his party formed the government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in 2013. However, the party has changed the law many times. The law envisaged villages as the basic unit. Over 1,000 union councils were converted into 3,501 village councils/ neighbourhood councils (for the urban areas). Thirty per cent of development funds were promised to the village/ neighbourhood councils and 24 government functions/ departments were devolved. The first polls under the new law were held in 2015, but the system crashed soon after its inauguration. Instead of empowering the local bodies, six of the 24 functions delegated to them were withdrawn. In a new amendment, funds were withheld from the local bodies “to be routed through officers designated by the government”. Ten more functions were withdrawn from the local governments, leaving them with only eight out of 24 promised in the LG Act of 2013. More amendments in 2019 to the LG Act abolished the district elected organisation, replacing it with an elected tehsil council. However, the move towards the grassroots level was neutralised by placing the elected tehsil council under the deputy commissioner as the provincial government’s principal representative.

Under the law, it is the responsibility of the provincial governments to hold local government polls within three months of the general election. However, elected governments have delayed them on one pretext or the other. The last PML-N government in Punjab was not willing to hold local polls because it feared the PTI and the PML-Q, whereas the PPP has a proven track record of avoiding the elections. According to experts, the PML-N and the PPP delayed the election to get a better chance to exploit the weaknesses of the system.

In Pakistan, provincial governments and legislators want all powers and development funds for themselves. Councillors and nazims are their enemies as they share powers with them and become more popular at the local level. It is why provincial governments do not empower them, financially and administratively. Former Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif had introduced an ordinance in the province which was a replica of the 1979 system of Gen Ziaul Haq. Under the system, local leaders could not take independent decisions and had to depend on bureaucrats’ approval. Besides, the government had empowered itself to dissolve the local governments. All public representatives, elected at the local level, had the least possible administrative and financial authority and were put under the bureaucracy, ensuring that all powers remained in the hands of the chief minister.

The PML-N and the PPP made several pretexts in the Supreme Court of Pakistan to avoid local polls for almost 10 years. It is a pity that both mainstream parties, which have ruled the country for several decades, do not want to devolve power to the local level, which is the essence of democracy all over the world. The Supreme Court had to intervene to remind politicians of their responsibilities to the people.

Another problem with local polls in Pakistan is that they are a real blessing for tribes and clans, who choose their representatives on the basis of Biradari (caste), instead of any other qualification. However, the polls can resolve many public issues at the local level with larger participation of people and political parties. As all main political parties have avoided holding them, dictators held local polls regularly. Former President Musharraf was the latest example. However, if the polls are held regularly, voting on the basis of clans (Biradari) and other considerations will phase out and people would elect honest and genuine representatives to resolve their problems at the local level.

The PTI is also following in the footsteps of the PPP and the PML-N over local elections. It has delayed them under different pretexts in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhaw, the provinces it rules. After the results of recent by-polls in Punjab, the PTI could further delay local polls. If it is forced by courts to hold them, it will have to work really hard to beat the PML-N in the province. It appears it will have to adopt the system of former Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif to win the polls and control local bodies and their representatives. The ruling party still has some time to improve its chances. It can take measures to reduce prices of food and essentials, which is the biggest problem of people. It can announce development schemes in the budget to woo voters, especially in rural areas. However, good governance will remain a dream in the absence of a vibrant local government system. Prime Minister Imran Khan should hold elections under his vision to empower people at the grassroots level, without caring for the results. It will be a great service to people and democracy, even if his party fails to win.