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Writing on the board

May 04, 2015


The writer works with Punjab Lok Sujag, a research and advocacy group.
The writer works with Punjab Lok Sujag, a research and advocacy group.

THE Election Commission of Pakistan recently announced the preliminary results of elections to 42 cantonment boards. With 1.9 million registered voters, 199 wards of these boards are worth just five to six national constituencies. The constituency sizes of the boards vary a lot. Murree Gallis, Ward 1 with just 17 votes stands at the lowest end while many wards of Rawalpindi, Lahore and Karachi have registered voters in excess of 30,000.

Cantonments do not appear as demographic representatives of society in many other aspects as well. For example, the gender ratio in cantonments is 74 women to 100 men while it is 92 for the entire country, according to the 1998 census.

It will thus not be correct to read too much into the results of these elections but howsoever skewed the ‘sample’ might be it would still be erroneous to ignore it.

To begin with, these are the first local bodies elections after the 2005 ones. The elected governments have been dragging their feet on fulfilling their constitutional responsibility and devolving power further by introducing this constitutionally mandatory third-tier of governance.

For the last two years, it had become a kind of tussle between the higher judiciary and the ruling parties. The former has been issuing deadlines for holding these elections and the latter had been busy cooking up one excuse after the other seeking their postponement. Two months back when the Supreme Court warned the prime minister of a contempt of court notice, the schedule for local government elections was finally announced.

While too much should not be read into the cantonment polls, they cannot be ignored altogether.

Uncertainty had continued to prevail for some time after that but as the cantonment elections were held on the promised date, it seemed that the government had given in and the countrywide round of local elections had begun. But this comes with a caveat.

The most common plea of the provincial governments seeking postponement had been the country’s law and order situation but when this was overruled they cited a plethora of administrative difficulties, most notably the issue of delimitation of constituencies. Delimitation is done on the basis of census data. The demographic exercise was last conducted 18 years ago and most of its figures obviously do not hold now.

The federal government has announced recently it will conduct a population census in March 2016 while the court has ordered that local elections be completed by September this year. That will be six months ahead of the new census which is likely to substantially change the constituency statistics.

This might make yet another good excuse for the governments to seek further delay in the dates, especially in Punjab and Sindh as working with outdated data will hurt the efficiency of the new local government institutions. Their powers have already been severely curtailed under the newly enacted local government laws.

So whether the cantonment board elections represent a thaw in the rulers’ approach or are just an attempt to pacify an active judiciary is yet to be known. The ruling parties have two main grudges against the local government elections. One, they are not willing to share power with numerous new players, and two, they are afraid of the emergence of a new, updated popular verdict.

The issue of rigging in 2013’s general elections is with the judicial commission formed for this purpose. Though the PML-N considers the political crisis kicked up by the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) to be over for now, they don’t want to see another one emerge, even if it is of low intensity.

Local government elections will throw up a new verdict, factoring in and adjusting to the political developments since the general elections 2013. Has the PTI’s rigging euphoria gnawed into its vote bank, or has the non-performance of the incumbent governments on important fronts, like the energy crisis, lowered their popularity graphs?

This anxiety has become a stumbling block in the way of local elections. Despite their limitations, the cantonment elections have a tale to tell and probably one that might help ease some tensions.

The provincial share in 199 wards of the cantonment boards is almost the same as in the National Assembly. Results put the PML-N on top as it returned victorious in 67 wards (59 in Punjab) while PTI won in 37 wards. But more importantly, the PTI was runner-up in 50 of all seats that the PML-N won and the latter party stood second in 20 seats where PTI candidates were declared returned.

Independents have emerged as the second largest ‘party’ winning in 49 wards but their polled votes tallies have thinned and those of the PML-N have swelled proportionately.

The PTI-Jamaat-i-Islami combine remained the largest group in 30 wards of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa winning in nine and three, respectively. The PPP and the Awami National Party occupied the sidelines with one and two victories while the PML-N remained confined to its traditional bastion of the Hazara division winning in two wards. Independents, however, made it big in the province winning as many slots as the top party (the PTI).

The Muttahida Qaumi Movement has stood tall, defeating a mix of PPP, JI, PTI and PML-N candidates in the cantonments of Karachi and Hyderabad where it won in 17 of the 40 wards and was runner-up in five others.

The PPP is battered, winning in one ward of Peshawar and six of urban Sindh. There is just one cantonment in interior Sindh, Pano Aqil, with only two wards.

So the overall elections in Punjab essentially remained a fight between the PML-N and PTI; the status quo prevailed in KP and urban Sindh; and all but one candidate from Balochistan were independents.

There seems to be no big change in the power equations created by general elections in 2013. By extension, one can expect that the upcoming local elections too will not greatly upset any cart and if this realisation sinks in, the ruling parties’ opposition to local elections might wither, leading to the next important step in devolution of power and democracy-strengthening exercise.

The writer works with Punjab Lok Sujag, a research and advocacy group.

Published in Dawn, May 4th, 2015

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