THE new cycle of local government elections in Pakistan started with a bang. Though delayed by more than a year, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa was the first province to undergo the first phase of LG elections in 17 districts on Dec 19. Quite unexpectedly and in contrast to the voting pattern of the general election of 2018, the PTI seems to be losing the LG poll to Maulana Fazlur Rehman’s JUI-F — some party leaders prefer to call it by its official name of Jamiat-i-Ulema Islam Pakistan — which is emerging as the largest party in the province.
The provisional results of the national and provincial assemblies’ election are required by law to be announced within nine hours of the close of polling but it is a reflection of the complexity of the LG election and laxity on the part of the polling staff that only a fraction of the results have been announced so far despite the lapse of 10 days since the polls were held.
Although also at stake are 2,200 village and neighbourhood councils whose results have not been announced by the ECP as yet, the most important contests are for the mayors of four cities and chairmen of 60 tehsil councils. The ECP has announced the results of only three out of four city councils and 38 of 60 tehsil councils so far. Based on these results, the JUI-F has won in two (Kohat and Bannu) of the four city councils, the ANP has clinched the mayorship in Mardan while the result of the mayoral contest for Peshawar is still awaited. Unofficial media reports have, however, put the JUI-F candidate for Peshawar mayor in an almost irreversible lead and even if there is re-polling in some of the disputed polling stations, the candidate is almost sure to return as the first directly elected mayor of the almost two million residents of Peshawar — right under the nose of PTI-controlled provincial government.
The defeat in Peshawar is understandably painful because the PTI had won all five National Assembly and 11 out of 14 provincial assembly seats in Peshawar district back in 2018. In stark contrast, JUI-F, which could not win any assembly seat from Peshawar in 2018, clinched two of the four tehsil chairmanships in Peshawar district in this LG election. The PTI, which had won the 2018 provincial assembly election by a two-third majority, has failed to win even a single city in 2021.
The PTI, despite a major setback, must be praised for open-heartedly accepting the poll results.
The JUI-F has won 13, the largest number, of tehsil chairmanships among the 38 tehsils for which the results have so far been announced, followed by 11 by the PTI, five by the ANP, three by the PML-N and one each by the PPP and Jamaat-i-Islami, while the remaining four tehsils are carried by independent candidates. Despite this battering in the tally of heads of local governments, the PTI can comfort itself that it won the largest percentage (24 per cent) of popular votes though only marginally more than the JUI-F’s vote share of 23pc. This, however, is no consolation when one compares the 2021 vote share with the 31pc share in 2018 — a fall of seven percentage points. On the other hand, the JUI-F, which could secure merely 16pc of the votes in KP in 2018, has significantly improved its popular vote share by the same percentage points in 2021 indicating the swapping of fortunes.
The PTI, despite this major electoral setback in its power base, must be commended for open-heartedly accepting the election results and for starting the process of soul-searching and putting the internal affairs of the party in order, instead of taking refuge behind allegations of rigging, which is quite common in Pakistan’s political culture. Imran Khan dissolved the entire party structure not only in KP but in the entire country. It is not certain whether the initiative to write yet another party constitution is also related to the LG debacle in KP but drastic changes are expected in the party organisation as a 21-member constitutional committee is appointed and new office-bearers are nominated by the party chairman. Although it is not considered very wise to initiate party reorganisation in the fourth year of a government’s five-year term, one may consider this action as a reflection of how seriously the party chairman has taken the results of the KP LG election.
The second phase of the KP LG polls covering the remaining districts is scheduled for Jan 16 but demands for postponement have become louder since the results of the first phase came in. The key reason given for the proposed postponement is the cold and harsh weather in many of the remaining districts. It is quite likely that the second phase will be deferred to March or even April 2022. It is, however, not certain that the postponement will help the PTI in any way.
The direct election of the mayors and tehsil chairmen has set a new trend in the LG system in Pakistan. Credit for this game-changing trend should also be given to Imran Khan who dug in his heels to defend the direct election provision in the LG law not only in KP but also in Punjab despite opposition by some of his allies and even by some party colleagues. Direct election will hopefully strengthen the local governments, bringing them closer to the people and it will become very difficult to ignore or dismiss popularly elected representatives representing millions of voters.
Besides the second phase of the KP LG election, the PTI is going to face another huge challenge in Punjab where LG elections are expected in April or May 2022. The ECP has already announced the schedule of the village and neighbourhood demarcation and it seems that, despite the reservations of the naysayers, the Punjab LG election may go ahead.
Irrespective of the outcome of the LG elections and their possible fallout on the next general election, Imran Khan’s legacy will live as the first elected government which laid the foundation of a robust LG system in Pakistan provided he remains steadfast and is not deterred by temporary setbacks.
The writer is president of the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development And Transparency.
Published in Dawn, December 30th, 2021