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Out to muzzle the verdict

December 21, 2013

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IN the latest twist to the ongoing saga of local government elections, the provincial governments are refusing to foot the bill of this massive exercise. Their argument is that elections do not fall under the provincial governments’ purview. The federal government is trying to persuade them to foot at least half the bill.

They’ll find a way out. But what this episode highlights is the disdain that provincial governments have for this lower tier of governance. They are in denial of its need and importance and want to wish it away, but do not want to be seen opposing it publicly as that will be considered undemocratic.

Moreover, repeated court orders have also put the elected governments in an uncomfortable position. They don’t want any other institution to champion the cause of democracy. It is not political will that is driving the process of local elections but the fear of public humiliation. Can a whole new system of governance survive and perform in such unfavourable environs?

This hostility found first expression in local government laws enacted by the provincial governments. Punjab had to make major changes, following court orders, within three months of enacting the law. Sindh has amended its law thrice, yet the Muttahida Qaumi Movement labels it a ‘black law’. The Awami National Party challenged the KP law in court last week raising serious objections. This demonstrates the lack of consensus among the main stakeholders on the rules of the game.

There is unwillingness and disagreement and we are yet to face more practical, crucial matters related to constituency delimitation, voter lists and other polling and vote count issues. Many local parties are already accusing the authorities of gerrymandering. It doesn’t take much to foresee more trouble which may render the whole exercise futile, if not counterproductive.

There are two major sources of anxiety for the governments.

First, they feel comfortable with the existing colonial governance structure where the rule flows down to the lowest rung of society through appointed functionaries answerable directly to the top authority. They are compliant, offer little to no resistance and in an untoward situation can be ‘fixed’ without much hullabaloo.

In contrast, a democratic office, drawing legitimacy directly from the masses, is likely to have its own opinion on matters concerning the constituents and might not always kowtow to the central authority. The government is wary of such possible resistance in governance channels. It thinks that the pyramid-shaped network of loyal bureaucrats is a better delivery mechanism, besides being an effective defence against political opposition. It is apprehensive that politicisation of governance will hurt its efficiency. This perception is gravely flawed.

An elected local governance structure is more efficient and less corrupt as it has to be more responsive to local needs and conditions. This puts functionaries under the effective control of the people and brings tangible improvements in governance.

This ostensible ‘subjugation’ of bureaucracy may in fact be serving as the main source of resistance against the process of democratisation. Devolution under the 18th Amendment is facing similar opposition for such petty reasons that it has converted many prime federal posts into less lucrative provincial ones.

Secondly, the governments fear that local elections will be the latest popular verdict and if this does not match exactly the one given by the people last May, it will cause trouble and instability. What if the PML-N failed to come out as clear a winner in the local polls as it did in the general elections? They fear that this will strengthen doubts about the credibility of the May elections that are already causing concern given the thumb impression verification controversy and the government’s dispute with the National Database & Registration Authority chief.

Other provincial governments also fret over a repeat verdict. If the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf loses local elections, the KP government will slip deeper into trouble. The PPP in Sindh has similar apprehensions.

All of them are thus unanimous in their desire that local elections be only allowed to mirror the results of the May elections. This attempt at muzzling the verdict will distort the democratic features of local governments beyond recognition.

The fear of a new verdict is, however, ill-founded and misplaced. Differences in two consecutive verdicts may cause some friction and necessitate some adjustments in power equations. But that should not be seen negatively.

The continuous fine-tuning of power equations is what democracy is supposed to do. India has recently held elections in four important states, just months before the scheduled general elections.

More importantly, it is vital to let democracy facilitate the process of demand formulation at the grass roots and let it channelise political energy from down under to the top tier. The channels need to ease the flow, not block it.

Pakistan has denied its tribal areas democratic representation for over half a century and has continuously patronised a rotten, non-representative system comprising maliks and highhanded bureaucrats, both appointed by it. This created a massive gulf between the people and government which it now finds impossible to bridge.

It might be too late to correct its mistakes in the tribal areas. But it is not too late for the rest of the country. In fact, following the historic first-ever democratic transition, it may be opportune for democracy in the country to take a big leap forward.

The writer recently compiled a compendium on Pakistan’s electoral history since 1970.

Twitter: @TahirMehdiZ.