Several tactics are available to the provincial governments to postpone the local government elections that have been pending for nearly five years. These governments, save Balochistan, have been defying with impunity their own promises of holding the elections that they made before the Supreme Court.

As the court swung into action, the federal and provincial governments issued ordinances and passed laws empowering the Election Commission of Pakistan to delimit the municipal wards and hold the polls. Under the previous legislation the ECP was authorised to demarcate only national and provincial constituencies.

This was the latest in a series of hurdles created in the way of municipal polls. The provincial governments have cleverly moved in a piecemeal fashion on several relevant issues as delaying tactics. In view of the past five years’ record, one may say the half-hearted legislation regarding the delimitation is yet another tool to create controversy and delay the polls.

Our political elite see elected local bodies as their rivals.
The new legislation authorises the ECP to fix the boundaries of wards, the smallest municipal constituency. The new legislation does not empower the commission to demarcate a union council, a municipal corporation, a town committee or a district council. Thus the provincial governments will use their discretion to set the limits of more important local government units. This may invite litigation sooner or later, thus further postponing the electoral process.

The provincial governments have been dragging their feet over municipal elections on one or the other pretext since the last local governments completed their tenure in December 2009. First, a bad law and order situation was presented as an excuse during the 2008-2013 period. Afterwards, delay in framing the new local government laws and controversy over the delimitation of constituencies were used to evade the elections.

Another potential impediment could be the census that has not been held for the last 16 years. Under the Constitution, it is incumbent to have a new census after every 10 years, which provides the legal basis for a fresh delimitation of electoral constituencies. At some stage, someone may move court on this issue, thereby throwing another spanner in the way of local elections.

The provinces’ reluctance to hold the municipal polls is despite the fact that all the provincial governments have drastically reduced the functional mandates of municipal bodies in the new local government laws replacing the 2001 system. Still, they fear they may lose some portion — however small — of their authority to local representatives.

This is in disregard of the Constitution, where three different articles call for the establishment of local bodies in the provinces. In Article 7, the definition of state includes local authorities while Article 32 says the state will encourage local government institutions. Article 140-A uses the word ‘shall’ for holding the local elections, thus making them mandatory.

The fact is that our rulers have denied the people even that amount of local self-government which the colonial British rulers introduced in united India in the early 20th century. In 1919, the Raj established representative village panchayats with wide authority in civic matters. As far back as 1924, local representatives were working in the district boards in Punjab and Sindh.

Instead of improving the system of local governance inherited from the colonial era, our elected governments have regressed by centralising whatever authority was decentralised almost a century earlier. The reason is our political elite see elected local bodies as their rivals that encroach on the sphere of the provincial authority.

The PPP never conducted a local bodies poll whenever it ran a government in a province or the centre. The PML under Nawaz Sharif conducted two rather farcical local bodies elections in Punjab, one in 1991, the other in 1997. Both were marred by rigging and manipulation by the provincial administration.

Before the 2013 general elections, Imran Khan was a champion of the devolution of authority and promised local government polls within three months of assuming office. Almost one and a half years have passed but his party has not held municipal elections in KP. Now Imran Khan has put all the blame on the ECP.

As democratic traditions have yet to take firm root in our country, we need clear constitutional clauses for even those acts that are considered part and parcel of a democratic polity. Local governments are one such subject. Our Constitution does not stipulate the time period for holding the local polls — a grey area which is exploited by those in power.

One can only hope the superior judiciary will put its foot down and ensure implementation of the existing articles of the Constitution. Meanwhile, civil society should keep raising its voice.

The writer is a journalist and researcher based in Lahore.