Local bodies are basic building blocks of governance. Being closest and easily approachable to the common man, these bodies are widely considered the ultimate governance instrument for solving most basic problems, addressing small-scale development needs and community welfare, hence infusing in the masses a sense of ownership for these bodies. For effective, efficient and representative local governance, local government elections play a very vital role. There exists, therefore, a need to analyze the interplay among problems in local bodies’ elections, their adverse effects on formation of efficient local bodies and the resultant challenges to local governance in the country.
Governance structure in Pakistan has historically been two-tiered, federal and provincial, with introduction of the third tier i.e. local bodies, only occasionally and intermittently. However, with the introduction of the 18th Constitutional Amendment in 2010, local governments (hereinafter LG) have to be a permanent tier in country’s governance structure under Article 140A of the Constitution of Pakistan, 1973, which enunciates:
“(1) Each Province shall, by law, establish a local government system and devolve political, administrative and financial responsibility and authority to the elected representatives of the local governments.
However, devolution of power to the third tier and an effective local governance system require a number of measures to be taken at different levels and stages. Many of the challenges to effective local governance come from underlying flaws in LG elections, which lead to questions being raised now on the very justification and legitimacy of local governments in some cases and hence contribute in impeding the envisaged benefits of local governance from reaching the common man.
Elections for local bodies, like other elections, depend heavily on the legal framework provided for them. The legal structure not only answers fundamental questions, such as whether the elections would be party-based or otherwise, whether the top positions of local bodies would be elected directly or indirectly, the composition and hierarchy of local bodies etc., but also outlines appropriate parameters for fair play, and redressal of grievances if the spirit of fair play is violated.
Issues with legal framework could arise from two directions: first is the quality of laws, rules and regulations i.e. whether they are comprehensive, cover all aspects and can stand the test of practical challenges while the second is the extent to which these laws are implemented in their true spirit and stakeholders’ acceptance and abidance of the same.
Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) is an independent body constituted under Article 218 of the Constitution. Appointments of the Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) and Members of the ECP are made through a consultative and parliamentary process as per Article 213. Under the 22nd Constitutional Amendment, which was passed in June 2016, civil servants as well as the technocrats too can be appointed as CEC and members of ECP, in addition to serving or retired judges of the superior courts. The CEC and members of ECP serve a five-year term constitutionally secured under Article 215. Hence, the ECP is independent, carries confidence of both the government and the opposition and is legally free from any influence or pressure. ECP also has complete financial and administrative autonomy in its functions; it has been constitutionally authorized to set up tribunals for hearing petitions against alleged electoral irregularities, the executive authorities are also obliged by the Constitution to assist ECP in discharge of its functions and now it has been empowered also to carry out delimitation for local bodies’ elections.
The ECP issued code of conduct for LG polls in the four provinces. Albeit minor changes in codes of conduct issued from time to time, common points in all of those included emphasis on political parties/candidates to openly condemn violence, menace of terrorism; bar on expressing views against the ideology of Pakistan, its stability/sovereignty, judiciary’s independence and armed forces’ reputation, etc. The codes called upon parties and candidates to desist from steps that might encourage crimes like bribing voters or intimidating them; capped campaign expense limit at Rs. 200,000; barred opposition of and criticism on any candidate based on religion, caste or ethnicity, and banned the publication of advertisements by the federal and provincial governments in newspapers or through other media outlets for convincing voters. As per ECP data, a total of 3,881 complaints were received from all four provinces and Islamabad Capital Territory (ICT) out of which 3,877 were disposed of. However, media carried many news items in which aggrieved parties and complainants were not satisfied with the way ECP disposed of the complaints and hence they moved courts against the ECP decisions, making results of many UCs and other bodies controversial. ECP’s own data show that show-cause notices to only about 150 alleged violators were issued which being less than half a percent of the total complaints received portrays an overwhelming systematic tilt in favour of the alleged violators. Poll campaign expenses in most cases exceeded well above Rs. 200,000 limit but no data are available if ECP took any action on these violations. Similarly, most of the other conditions such as propaganda, derogatory remarks against opponents, size limit of banners, bar on use of hoardings, use of loudspeakers, wall chalking, government ads in media, were violated but no record is made available by the ECP if any fines were imposed or disqualifications made on these violations.
Under Article 140A (1) of the Constitution, separate laws were promulgated for LGs in four provinces and ICT. A comparative analysis of local government laws points to various lacunas, such as unspecified, or below par, allocation of seats for women, minorities and youth; non-devolution of important functions/institutions (such as revenue-generating civic bodies); slow process of devolution of power; Party Block Vote system i.e. the party or independent panel winning at UC level fills all seats on the respective body; and party-proportional mechanism for reserved seats.
While legal framework outlines how the elections should be held, it is the administrative framework that sets out how elections are actually held. Administrative shortcomings in local governance are diverse, broad and pervasive, so much so that volumes can be written only on administrative issues. Major issues include absence of objective criteria for selection of election staff, lack of proper training for them and delimitation that fails to establish equality of vote across all constituencies.
Sociopolitical issues with LG elections and local governance are most critical – yet most neglected – of all. The very fact that LGs have not been a permanent feature of Pakistan’s governance structure signifies the rather passive approach of the political parties toward local bodies. It is widely believed that political elite view local bodies as potential challengers to their political dominance and a diluting factor for their political grip in the constituencies. This negative approach toward local governments manifests in a number of ways, prominent of which have been analyzed subsequently.
Establishment of local bodies became a constitutional requirement in the year 2010; however, LGs were not made functional until many years later. Balochistan was first to enact LG law in 2010 and subsequently to hold elections in December 2013. The other three provinces did not enact LG laws until 2013 and they held elections in late 2015 – and that too after a number of orders by the superior courts. Almost all political parties, one way or the other, appeared united on delaying LG elections as much as they could, and this fact made their passive approach to LGs even more evident.
Pakistan has seen concentration of political, social and economic power in a few conglomerate families over the years. These families seem to call the shots in country’s major political parties. Therefore, after delaying LG elections and negating the devolution of powers to the local bodies, these parties took steps to ensure that all important positions of local bodies, such as mayors, chairmen and their deputies, are taken by people loyal and committed to them. While there is nothing wrong with it from a legal perspective, this practice strongly undermines the spirit of devolution of powers to the grassroots levels as the common man remains deprived of due representation at the higher levels of LGs.
Non-implementation of the code of conduct for the elections is an administrative problem of serious concern. Even more serious is the sociopolitical dimension of the problem i.e. the sheer defiance and lack of respect among all major political parties for the code of conduct. Based on the social trends, it can be argued that many candidates intentionally defied the code as a symbol of their strength, to intimidate their opponents and voters and to openly challenge authority of the ECP, which is definitely not a healthy sign. The defiance was not just at the individual candidates’ level rather a large number of complaints to ECP on violation of the code were against federal/provincial governments, government functionaries, departments and organizations, ranging from Prime Minister’s Kissan Package, announcement of development schemes, fund release for development projects and participation by ministers, parliamentarians and other public office holders in election-related events.
LG laws in all four provinces provide for reserved seats for women. However these reserve seats not only conceal the true magnitude of the lack of women’s participation in country’s political system but also is a problem in itself – women’s election on reserve seats is based on party-proportional basis on the choice of party bigwigs, almost all of who are men and at the same time it almost eliminates chances for election of women on general, open competition seats, for many in political parties believe that women have sufficient share through reserve seats and there is no need for them to compete on general seats. Moreover, women are not allowed to place their banners, are made fun of by remarks such as “how will she help if there is a problem in the locality at midnight, how will she go to thana katchehri.” In addition, there have been reports that women were barred from voting in many parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan. Apart from this deliberate exclusion of women, turnout of females in elections is much lower as compared with the males. All combined, these practices effectively seclude 50% of our population from the voting process, which has very negative consequences for establishment of local governments that are the true representative of the population.
Politics in Pakistan has increasingly become a costly affair over the years and LG elections are no exception. Overwhelming majority of country’s population consists of poor, lower middle and middle income households; however, their presence in all elected bodies, including local bodies, is negligible. Apart from dominance of strong political families explained above, wealth of a candidate and strong fraternity (biradari, tribe, clan) are the decisive factors in most of the cases – wealth in higher and more important levels of local bodies while fraternities at the grassroots levels. The wealthy exploit loopholes in the electoral system, use money for buying votes, garner support from influential families/personalities, do better publicity and campaigning and hence gain undue advantage over others. This trend is counterproductive in the sense that the LGs so formed are not true representatives of the population at large and the wealthy elected representatives are neither aware of the real problems facing the impoverished majority nor interested in solving those. Similarly, candidates from more populous and socially dominant fraternities have an edge over other candidates in the elections, which not only limits their representative base but also tends to make them biased in favour of their fraternity in development works in the post-election scenario.
The logical question is: what’s next? First is better legal framework for local bodies’ elections and stronger implementation mechanism. On administrative side, ECP should introduce objective criteria for selection of election staff at all levels. A pool of officers/officials can be drawn from government well in advance of elections, adequately trained to perform duties during elections and groomed to act neutral, courageous and composed during any untoward incident. ECP must ensure strict abidance of code of conduct for the elections by imposing fines, disqualifying the violators in accordance with law – setting examples to provide level playing field to all candidates irrespective of their wealth and social standing. Delimitation procedure should be made transparent and effective by establishing an independent mechanism for periodic review of boundaries such that constituencies are equalized and equality of vote is established. Updated data of voter registration should be used for this purpose.
To overcome sociopolitical issues with local bodies’ elections, rule of law and better administration are prerequisites. Important, however, is to create awareness among the public about significance of LGs for their betterment, importance of voting for candidates based on good reputation, competence and motivation to serve rather than wealth and social connections. For this, special units should be included in textbooks of all classes, regular advertisements should be aired on electronic media and road shows should be organized in rural areas. Mode of this educative content should not be conventional advising rather it should be appealing to the masses such as comparison of two imaginary villages, with significantly better situation of the village in which people voted for right candidates and allowed women to participate as compared to the village where people voted for rich candidates of a particular biradari, tribe or clan.