PESHAWAR / LAHORE / KARACHI / ISLAMABAD / RAWALPINDI: The much-anticipated local bodies’ elections remained shrouded in confusions, controversies and tugs of war. However, a semblance of clarity is now seen as in a latest turn of events, the Supreme Court has allowed the Election Commission of Pakistan to come up with a new schedule for elections in Punjab and Sindh and the previous schedule has been cancelled.
However, the situation continues to be marred by ambiguity as disgruntled contestants look on to see where this will go.
The preparations for local government (LG) elections began with the formation of political alliances. The chief minister was expected to announce the schedule for these elections by mid January. However, when asked about the shape of the new LG setup, most people expressed unawareness, including the former LG setup officials.
Malik Farzand Ali, former naib nazim Pajjagi union council (UC), said that though they were preparing to contest the upcoming elections, there is no awareness drive conducted by the government for them and unaware contestants cannot, in turn, educate voters.
“Most of the candidates are likely to be elected unopposed for village and neighbourhood councils,” added Ali, referring to the new sub-division of the UCs. For example, his one UC in the past is now divided into six village councils. Ali foresees that people will adopt traditional means such as jirgas for bringing unopposed candidates and no strong rivals like the past will be seen in the next elections. The aspiring candidate is confused about the future setup. He also anticipated that influential people will continue to have an upper hand.
Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf’s (PTI) district vice-president Mardan, Adil Nawaz, said that their party was conducting an awareness drive at grassroot level in the district. He explained that one village council will have two women members, one farmer councilor, and one youth and minority member each, while there will be five general seats. He added that the population ratio is being taken into consideration, like “When the population increases from the 5,000 mark, one general seat councilor will be increased for a UC”.
Admitting that confusion regarding the new system, former tehsil nazim Mardan, Ibrahim Biland of Jamaat-e-Islami, said the LG department had been advised to consult the former nazimeen and people from all walks of life. He was hopeful that people will get familiar with the new setup over time.
Omar Asghar Khan Foundation programme manager Mumtaz Tanoli said that they had collected suggestions from four divisions of the province regarding Local Government Act and handed them over to the KP government, and these had been taken into consideration in the Act.
An official of the LG department, on condition of anonymity, said that the government knows about the confusions regarding the LG setup, but they have no awareness campaign to educate people so far. He further said that every political party can create awareness on an individual level through party workers.
After the judgment of a full bench of the Lahore High Court which declared delimitations carried out by the provincial government as illegal, the Punjab Election Commission was in quandary over holding the local body elections scheduled for January 30 on time. But Monday’s ruling of the SC has relaxed them, as the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) gears up to reschedule the polls.
On November 13, the ECP undertook, before a three member bench of the Supreme Court headed by then-chief justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, that they would hold the elections in Punjab on January 30. Filing of nomination papers was completed on December 27. According to section 8 and 9 of Punjab Local Government Act 2013, the provincial government has the authority to carry out delimitations. However, on December 31, a full bench of the Lahore High Court declared the delimitations thus carried out was illegal. The court also directed that section 8 and 9 of the Act be amended, which would empower the election commission instead of the government to carry out the delimitations.
Sources in the ECP, prior to the latest development, had already predicted that it would be impossible to hold the elections in the province on January 30 after the decision of the LHC, and for this they had applied to the court, asking it to let them alter the election schedule. They said this was done to avoid any court action as the earlier schedule was announced with the consent of the apex court.
In the petition, the ECP had submitted that holding elections on the scheduled time is impossible as the delimitation of wards, blocks and union councils are no longer applicable after the judgment of the LHC. Also, printing of ballot papers on time would be impossible. The Printing Corporation of Pakistan and Pakistan Security Printing Corporation had also requested that the deadline be extended as the printing of ballot papers can only be started after the list of contesting candidates is finalised. It added that to print 250 million ballot papers for Punjab would take at least 25 days.
The idea of a fresh schedule has now helped relax the returning officers and aspiring candidates who were in a fix over the elections.
Even after the recent development in which the SC has allowed the ECP to reschedule the LG polls, the controversy over local government laws in Sindh remains unresolved. Also, the delay at this point is indefinite, since all officials remain clueless about new dates. Not only the Sindh government, but officials of ECP as well as candidates who have fielded their nomination papers remain confused. “Around 65000 people have filed their nomination papers in Sindh to contest the elections, but all the forms have now been declared null and void after recent decision by election commission to postpone the polls,” said provincial election commissioner Tariq Qadri, adding that they have stopped the entire process and are now waiting for further directives to be given by the election commission, Islamabad.
Sindh was the first province which passed the law, but political tussles between political parties regarding this act, especially PPP and MQM, has made the issue highly contentious. Though the process of submitting the nomination papers was in full swing, it seemed that the prayers of MQM and six other petitioners (PML N, PML F and JI etc) had been answered when SHC declared the fresh delimitation of UCs un-constitutional and ordered to either carry out new demarcation of UCs under independent authority or that elections be held on the basis of old UCs made in 2001.
“Despite having serious reservations over the new Sindh Local Government Act 2013, we wanted to contest the polls, but sudden amendments to the law passed by the provincial government in favour of the ruling party have compelled us to challenge the law in court,” said MQM leader Dr Farooq Sattar.
The third amendment that was made to form a panel of nine candidates to contest the elections further irked them. Under this law, the population of union councils and committees now ranges between 10,000 to 50,000 people as compared to the earlier formula of 30,000 to 50,000 people. However, deputy commissioners were given rights to convert any rural area into an urban one or vice versa.
On the other hand, leaders of the ruling PPP and ministers of the provincial cabinet claimed that they had taken all stakeholders including opposition parties into confidence. From day one, PPP has been demanding that elections be held in March. But their proposal was not accepted.
The situation has now changed after the SHC’s decision. However the provincial government which has now challenged the decision in apex court is confident that SHC decision would be set aside by higher judiciary.
The federal capital is the hub of national politics, but it seems to be lagging behind in serving its own residents at grassroots level.
The piece of legislation that will allow local government elections to be held in the federal capital is still pending in the parliament.
Back in July 2013, when the Supreme Court was pushing for local government elections to be held throughout the country, Islamabad’s administrators realised that they did not have any legal framework for holding the local government elections in the capital’s urban areas.
Since then, the federal government has introduced a draft bill for the Islamabad Capital Territory Local Government Act 2013 in the National Assembly, which is now being reviewed by a standing committee.
But constitutional experts as well as members of civil society organisations say the draft bill is so flawed that even modifying it would not be able to remove the faults. It must be written again from scratch, they suggest.
The controversial points they have highlighted in the Act’s draft include a buried clause that essentially disallows party-based local government elections in Islamabad and the federal government’s overriding power of control on the local government’s budget and taxation.
As per the draft, local government in Islamabad will consist of a metropolitan corporation and union councils. But the capital has long been in the hold of a complicated and often inefficient arrangement of bureaucratic structures. The Capital Development Authority (CDA), the Islamabad Capital Territory administration and the Capital Administration and Development Division (CADD), formed after the 18th Amendment to supervise devolved subjects for Islamabad, report to different (or in the case of CDA and CADD, to the same) bosses in the federal government.
The overlapping functions of, and lack of coordination among, these agencies often means suffering for Islamabad’s citizens, sometimes through water shortage in urban areas and sometimes through inadequate facilities in rural areas.
Interventions by elected representatives in Islamabad’s convoluted bureaucratic management are either so far removed from everyday activities or so limited that they fail to have an impact on improving service delivery. A solid local government could potentially change that.
But the existing draft could end up be clipping the local government’s powers and maintaining status quo by allowing Islamabad’s administrative agencies to retain most of their powers, according to civil society representatives.
The petition by the ECP in the Supreme Court seeking delay of the LG elections further created ambiguity among the opposition parties in Rawalpindi. On the other hand, the provincial government’s confusing statements added to the problem.
The electioneering gained momentum after the Lahore High Court’s Rawalpindi bench declared the delimitation of Rawal Town and Potohar Town unlawful. The government had increased the number of UCs from 46 to 55 in Rawal Town and from 36 to 39 in Potohar Town.
A petition was filed by Sheikh Rashid Shaiq, former nazim of Rawal Town, challenging the delimitation. The petitioner claimed that the delimitation was in violation of clauses 6 and 8 of Punjab Local Government Act 2013. The petitioner said that the Act demands public participation but the delimitation was made without taking people’s objections into consideration. Besides, the Act also makes it binding that uniformity of population in the UCs be ensured, but the delimitation created disparity, as in some UCs the number of voters was as high as 20,000 while in others it was as low as 7,000.
The court ordered the district government to carry out delimitation as per law. However, the district government maintained the old number of UCs. January 30 2014 was fixed as the date for the elections, but the date has been cancelled Monday, and now new dates will have to be decided upon by the ECP. As many as 8,472 candidates have filed their nomination papers. But after the Lahore High Court declared delimitation across the province unlawful, the contesters stopped their electioneering and cancelled their meetings.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 14th, 2014.