Covid-19, legal challenges set to delay next LG polls in Sindh

Published August 23, 2020
Last time, the PPP, which has been ruling Sindh for the past over 12 years, took five years to hold the LG elections across the province. — File photo
Last time, the PPP, which has been ruling Sindh for the past over 12 years, took five years to hold the LG elections across the province. — File photo

KARACHI: While the incumbent local government set-up in Sindh is set to complete its four-year term in less than a week, timely elections to keep the electoral cycle going are not in sight due to the Covid-19 pandemic as well as legal challenges to delimitation of constituencies — a prerequisite for LG polls — especially after the provincial cabinet’s decision to carve out Keamari district from the city’s district West.

At present, Sindh is the only province where an elected LG set-up has been in place since Aug 30, 2016 when four mayors and dozens of chairmen of municipal bodies across the province took their oath of office.

The term of local governments in Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa had expired on Jan 27, 2019 and Aug 28, 2019, respectively, and local governments in Punjab were dissolved on May 4, 2019.

None of the three provinces — two of them directly ruled by the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf — seem interested in holding LG elections to have an elected set-up despite the fact that the country’s election law binds them to conduct the polls within 120 days of the expiry of the terms of the elected LGs.

Election Act says ECP shall hold polls within 120 days of the expiry of LGs’ term

Frank discussions with the leaders of the Pakistan Peoples Party and the Muttahida Qaumi Movement-Pakistan suggest that both the parties do not want timely or immediate LG elections. But they also not want to send a message to their voters that they want a delay.

The Covid-19 pandemic has provided an opportunity to the provincial government to seek a delay without taking any blame.

And the MQM-P played a legal card which will eventually help it in avoiding immediate polls.

On Aug 10, Karachi Mayor Wasim Akhtar, also a central leader of the MQM-P, had told reporters that his tenure was completing on Aug 28 and he was not seeing the next local government elections soon.

Four days later, while hinting at new elections PPP chairman Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari had made a formal announcement that his party’s government in Sindh would control the administrative affairs of Karachi following the completion of term of the elected LGs.

Last time, the PPP, which has been ruling Sindh for the past over 12 years, took five years to hold the LG elections across the province — that too on the orders of the Supreme Court — in 2015 after the dissolution of the then district government system in 2010.

Even today, the Sindh government has been running the show with the help of bureaucrats — commissioners and deputy commissioners — who are assigned key municipal tasks after bypassing the local governments, especially of Karachi, Hyderabad and Mirpurkhas where opposition Muttahida Qaumi Movement-Pakistan (MQM-P) is in power.

With the completion of the term of the current LGs, the provincial government is set to appoint the same bureaucrats as administrators of the province’s metropolitan and municipal corporations and municipal and town committees.

Election Act, SLGA differ on time frame

Section 219 of the Election Act, 2017 says the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) “shall conduct elections to the local governments under the applicable local government law, and the Rules framed thereunder, as may be applicable to a Province, cantonments, Islamabad Capital Territory or Federally Administered Tribal Areas.

“The Commission shall hold elections to the local governments within one hundred and twenty days of the expiry of the term of the local governments of a Province, cantonment, Islamabad Capital Territory or Federally Administered Tribal Areas.”

But, the Sindh Local Government Act (SLGA) 2013, which was passed by the Sindh Assembly with a majority vote, is silent about the date of election following completion of LG tenure.

Chapter V of the SLGA pertains to LG elections. While Section 34 (1) of the act says the ECP shall conduct elections, sub-section 2 of the same section gives the provincial government authority to announce the date of elections in the province.

It reads: “Government shall, in consultation with the Election Commission, make an announcement of the date or dates on which the election for the Councils shall be conducted in the Province or part thereof.

“Provided that the date or dates of such election shall not be less than sixty days and not more than hundred and twenty days from the date of such announcements.”

Many experts termed the abovementioned clause a lacuna since in the Constitution a clear time frame for holding elections for the National Assembly as well as provincial assemblies is mentioned.

Article 224 (1) and (2) of the Constitution say that the general election to the national or a provincial assembly shall be held within 60 days following the completion of the term, or within 90 days after the dissolution.

Legal challenges

The MQM-P has moved court to stop the delimitation of LG constituencies — a mandatory step for the ECP before holding LG polls — on technical grounds.

Under Section 17 (1) of the Elections Act, 2017, the ECP is responsible for delimitation of territorial constituencies for elections to the National Assembly, each provincial assembly and to local governments in accordance with the provisions of the Constitution, the Act, the Rules and the applicable LG law.

Section 17 (2) of the act reads: “The Commission shall delimit constituencies after every census officially published.”

The ECP has launched the exercise of delimitation of union councils, union committees and wards in the town committee and municipal committee in April this year, but the MQM-P challenged the process before the Sindh High Court on the grounds that any such exercise would be illegal since the final results of the population census held in 2017 are yet to be notified. The high court has issued notices to respondents and is set to take up the matter on Aug 26.

Besides, the MQM-P as well as other stakeholders also hinted at approaching courts against a recent decision of the Sindh cabinet to create Keamari district — the seventh in Karachi — to be carved out from district West.

However, it is safe to assume that the issue will take weeks if not months to decide and after the court’s decision the door of the apex court will also be open for the aggrieved parties to file an appeal. Until then, the LG elections may be delayed indefinitely.

Published in Dawn, August 23rd, 2020

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