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Democratic farce

October 20, 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.

DAYS before the phased local government elections in Sindh and Punjab, the governments of the two provinces are not done with the legal framework that will put to work this vital third tier of governance. Law officials are busy drafting amendments to laws, framing rules and formulating their responses to various petitions in courts.

These moves are not minor adjustments that are usually required when a concept is put into practice. Many of these actually have changed the nature of these elections and the design of the system that these are supposed to create.

The latest amendments have changed the method of elections on reserved seats. The Lahore High Court reserved its judgement in the case challenging the Punjab amendment on Oct 10.

Each union council of Punjab has been divided into six geographical constituencies and a general councillor is to be elected from each of these. In Sindh, the number of constituencies and directly elected members is four. A chairman and a vice chairman will be elected as joint candidates by all the voters of a union council. Besides these, every union council has five reserved seats; two for women and one each for farmer or labourer, youth and religious minorities.

Under the latest changes, the five reserved seats will not be filled through direct votes of the electorate. They will instead be elected by the chairing duo and general councillors. In that way, eight members in a Punjab union council and six in Sindh will elect another five.

The Pakistani political elite’s penchant for nominated members instead of elected ones is nothing new.

The reserved seats members were elected directly all over the country in the previous local government system under which elections were held in 2000 and 2005. The electors and election administrators thus have experience in handling multiple ballot papers required for direct elections on all seats and hence ‘difficulties in conduct’ cannot be used as an excuse to ‘simplify the procedure’.

More importantly, the reserved seats for the four categories were added with the realisation that these weaker sections of society cannot compete with the rest on an at-par basis and their resultant non-representation will further skew the governance system against them. The present system, however, aims to turn the weakness of these sections into an advantage for the most powerful by converting ‘the weak’ into ‘the weak and the obliged’. As the electoral college is too small, in practice the nominees of the chairman and the vice chairman are almost certain to win the indirect elections.

Afterwards, the chairing duo will always have votes of their five nominated members in their pocket. If national and provincial trends are an indicator, they are likely to nominate their close family members to the women’s seats, a young scion to the youth seat and their driver or cook to the labour seat, but who are they going to nominate to the minority seat?

It is known that the vast majority of non-Muslim communities in Pakistan belong to the low castes, called Dalits in India and elsewhere. The humiliating discrimination they face on a daily basis in our social milieu is fanned by many of our religion-based laws. They are the most marginalised persons in society and denying them a thorough process by leaving their representation to the whims of a few is insensitive and thoughtless.

The indirect election system will also reduce the directly elected general councillors to a powerless minority. The chairing duo is already vested with far more powers than the councillors who will have to look up to them for even small favours. The duo thus will be able to act on its own in all matters, paying little or no regard to the views and interests of the directly elected councillors.

The Pakistani political elite’s penchant for nominated members instead of elected ones is nothing new. When governor general Ghulam Mohammad dismissed the first Constituent Assembly in 1954, he tried to replace it with persons handpicked by him, despite the fact that at that time each province had its active legislature elected through the first adult franchise-based provincial elections. The governor general was restrained only through the intervention of superior courts.

The latter regimes got around these restraints by introducing party-less elections. These electoral exercises raise a crop of persons who enjoy support at the local level but their loyalties at the broader level are open — to the highest bidder. They are purchasable as gaining access to power is the only way they can turn their electoral victory into a sustainable political career. They are the next best political commodity to the nominated members.

The partyless elections give birth to kings’ parties that thrive as long as does His Majesty. Its actors then pray for the next monarch on the throne. They have dominated the political discourse for almost the entire length of our history. Their eminence has gradually made political parties, opposed to the king’s, accept and adopt the same ‘electables’ as theirs. They now find it easier to win over the select few instead of going through the arduous and painful process of building party structures from village and neighbourhood levels.

This is why the provincial governments had wanted to hold local elections on a non-party basis in the first place but were forced to abandon the plan because of the higher courts. The local elections in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa were, however, allowed to be held on a non-party basis at the village/neighbourhood level but at tehsil and district level these were on a party basis.

The local government elections offered a golden and once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to the political parties to break the hold of these electables on politics, sink their roots in the masses and lay foundations of strong party structures. Sadly, our polity has wrongly identified this opportunity as a ‘threat’ that has to be subverted.

Parties have refused to take a step forward in helping the democratic discourse become more mature, but more disturbing is the fact that they are falling back on the century-old imperial recipe of stuffing the houses with weak and manoeuvrable members. They might think that they have hedged their bets but working the wheel of history backwards is never successful.

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

Published in Dawn, October 20th , 2015

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