LOCAL GOVERNMENT ELECTIONS: The never ending Labryinth?

– This article is written with a focus on Punjab since Punjab is the last province to have functioning local governments and thus the longest timeline of glitches and hitches. The local government elections fiasco is similar in all four provinces since each spent at least 5 years without elected local governments, and it took nothing short of directions from the Supreme Court to fulfill their constitutional obligation. –

Last existing elected local governments were dissolved in December, 2009 at the culmination of their tenure. Today in September, 2016 there still aren’t any elected local governments in Punjab. Above is the short version. The long version, if interested, is as follows.

Almost all political parties seem averse to the idea of an elected local government (LG) for a multitude of reasons. The devolution of an effectively centralized power structure and financial autonomy to elected representatives at the union council level are not ideas welcomed by parties that are accustomed to trends more dictatorial than democratic. It is thus that whenever the idea of holding local body elections came up, feet were dragged and Article 140-A of the constitution was quite conveniently ignored by all the four provinces. This went on for four years until the then Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry decided to engage the federal and provincial governments and, as one last “heroic” stroke of the pen, ordered strict compliance with the constitutional obligation and holding of LG elections in the country no later than September, 2013. Justice Chaudhry had observed that political parties seemed reluctant in holding the elections – an observation which would repeatedly be made by succeeding Chief Justices and other honourable Justices of the Supreme Court.

Essential as this intervention in the executive’s domain was, it was impracticable. There was a prevailing vacuum in this area; no legislation had been done, there was apparent consensus on doing away with Musharraf’s LG laws (the Local Government Ordinance of 2001) but in the past four years not a minute had been spent on what the new law would be and in the absence of any law; the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) had no clue how to prepare for an election even if it intended to. Thus the September 2013 deadline came and went, and so would several other deadlines one after the other.

On Justice (R) Chaudhry’s repeated directions, ECP did announce a schedule for LG elections whereby elections in Punjab were to be held on the 7th of December, 2013. The Punjab Assembly had already passed the Punjab Local Government Act of 2013 (PLGA) in August. On the 7th of November, one month before the scheduled elections, the Lahore High Court ruled against Section 18 of the PLGA and directed that LG elections be held on party basis. On the 11th of November ECP decided to move the Supreme Court for postponement of LG elections on account of lack of preparations, the Supreme Court reluctantly obliged and elections were postponed till 30th of January, 2014.

As per the PLGA, delimitation of constituencies was carried out by the Punjab government, this was challenged in the Supreme Court. Before 30th of January, the Supreme Court invalidated said delimitation, directed the ECP to carry out fresh delimitation, and the Punjab government to make necessary amendments in PLGA. The LG elections were thus postponed indefinitely.

The required amendments couldn’t be made till October and thus the Federal government, by way of an ordinance, empowered ECP to conduct delimitations. Till December, 2014 the ECP had not been able to conduct fresh delimitations and blamed the provincial government for its failure to provide material necessary for the process. Then came 2015.

On the 13th of February, 2015, the then Chief Justice Honourable Justice Nasir ul Mulk remarked; “the way things are moving suggests that the elections are not going to be held this year and not even the next year as suggested by Punjab.” This remark would soon turn out to be an apt prediction. The Supreme Court ordered the ECP to complete delimitation and announce schedule for elections by 28th of July 2015. ECP then approached the Supreme Court for yet another extension on account of recent changes made in the PLGA.

Finally the ECP and Punjab government decided to go ahead with it, or so it seemed, and a phase wise schedule was announced on the 26th of August, 2015 for LG elections in Punjab starting from the 31st of October. The three phases of direct elections were conducted and dates for indirect elections were set for 8th, 11th and 14th of February, 2016. In the meantime some political parties had approached the Lahore High Court for striking down several amendments made in the PLGA (PLGA had been amended on four occasions till December, 2015 with more than fifty five amendments made in the first two years of its promulgation). The petitions were being heard by the honourable Lahore High Court however no stay orders were issued. On the 2nd of February, 2016 ECP suddenly, and on its own motion, postponed the elections on reserved seats citing pendency of petitions as the reason. The ECP was severely criticized for this move by all opposition parties who were already blaming it for aiding unnecessary delay in the LG elections. The decision turned out to be correct though, since the Punjab government decided to withdraw all the controversial amendments in August, 2016 and the petitions were rendered in fructuous.

ECP then announced the schedule for indirect elections on reserved seats which were to be held on the 1st, 2nd and 3rd of September, 2016. Again a petition was filed in Lahore High Court challenging the fact that only the candidates who had filed their nomination papers in January 2015 as per the then prevailing PLGA were allowed to contest. The Chief Justice of Lahore High Court accepted the petition and directed ECP to issue a fresh schedule for indirect elections. The schedule was thus cancelled yet again.

The ECP has expressed its intentions of challenging this decision before the Supreme Court once a copy of the final order is made available. This promises to delay the elections to reserve seats for another month or two at least.

Candidates who had started campaigning for elections in October, 2013 finally went into the elections in October to December 2015. Those who won are now office bearers without any offices. They have spent three years with their eyes fixed on the government, the ECP and judiciary, one after the other. You may have heard the proverb: “too many cooks spoil the broth”. The broth has well been spoiled, it doesn’t really look like broth anymore.

Elected local governments that are financially, politically and administratively autonomous, are a constitutional obligation. Articles 32 and 140-A of the constitution of Pakistan are in place to ensure that the country has a functioning democracy, complete only with the third tier; that is elected local governments. However, unlike the Parliament and provincial assemblies, the constitution is silent on the mode and time of elections and the structure of local governments. This silence creates room for other state actors to experiment with the system which results in long periods of absence of elected representatives holding offices of the local government. The ECP and the provincial governments aren’t certain of where one’s domain ends and the other’s begins. Constant intervention by the judiciary is thus unavoidable and a working model of elected representatives appears un-achievable. If it took three years just to get the elections right – and we still seem far from it – how long would it take to sort out provisions relating to the functioning of local governments?