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Lessons from KP local polls

Lessons from KP local polls

NOTHING that happened in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa during the local government elections, including violence, mismanagement and electoral malpractices, was unexpected. While every effort should be made to address the complaints made by the various parties, the authorities concerned must try to ensure that local elections in the other provinces are not controversial.

The KP elections confirmed the increased importance of local government in the country’s politics. Even in the days before 2002 when local bodies did not enjoy the financial resources and political clout they acquired under the Musharraf regime, influential political families kept one foot firmly in local politics. The tradition was evident in the latest local elections; practically every political heavyweight had a young surrogate in the field. And local bodies will always serve as a stepping stone for upward mobility.

The Musharraf regime made local government institutions enormously rich and powerful to the extent that all provincial governments dismantled that structure at the first opportunity. Under the new laws the provincial governments have drastically curtailed the local bodies’ powers and acquired extraordinary powers to control them. Since local government institutions deal with citizens’ basic needs, social welfare infrastructure, security and environmental protection, it will not be possible for the provincial governments to keep them in bondage for long though they will take time before achieving their rightful status as the third tier of constitutional authority.

The pull of visibility at the local level apart, local government elections awaken ambition in a much larger number of bosoms than in the case of polls for the provincial/federal assemblies. A relatively small following can secure one a place in a local body. Thus the results of local elections in Pakistan will be somewhat different from provincial/federal elections till political parties succeed in subsuming local level groupings. Only then will local elections become as correct a barometer of public opinion as elections to higher tiers.

This has been confirmed to some extent by signs of the Awami National Party’s recovery. It should now be possible for the party’s cadres to grow out of the despair the organisation’s 2013 rout had created. However, any significant improvement in the ANP’s fortunes will depend on its leadership’s capacity to heal internal fissures and regain its reputation for integrity.

The Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf perhaps did not fully understand the difference between local and higher elections in the current situation and was visibly keen to demonstrate that it had become stronger over the last two years of its rule. Evidence is already available to show that some of the party’s young workers tried to get away with the use of muscle power. The conduct of a provincial minister was enough to lend credence to the rival parties’ allegations of malpractices.

Unfortunately, the clamour against large-scale interference in the polling has been joined not only by almost all the opposition parties but also by PTI’s coalition partner, Jamaat-i-Islami. The PTI must address these complaints in a fair manner. It should be extra-jealous of its reputation, particularly in view of the public support it has gathered by its campaign for fair elections. How serious Imran Khan is about holding the local elections afresh is not clear but the gesture is worthy of appreciation and it could furnish a basis for a settlement acceptable to all parties, even without a re-election.

While the killing of about a dozen persons in election-related violence can only be regretted the scale of violence has mercifully been less than one had feared in view of the presence of militants who had caused havoc in 2013. Did the extremists hold their hand because the parties on their hit list were unlikely to win? If that were the case the implication will be that the militants do not wish to interfere in elections if the parties holding no-objection certificates from them have the upper hand. The democrats cannot be complacent.

There is complete consensus that Saturday’s poll was grossly mismanaged. The KP government is manifestly in the wrong when it blames the Election Commission for the security lapses. However, the ECP apparently failed to adequately train the polling staff. One does not know what arrangements had been made to enable the ECP officials to take timely action whenever and wherever disorder was reported, but no efficient mechanism for a quick response seems to have been put in place.

The large number of ballots a voter was required to stamp increased the time per vote cast and caused delays and bottlenecks. The ECP says it had suggested a staggered poll but the KP government denies this. This is a matter of fact that can easily be established. The problem will have to be resolved in a manner that local elections in Punjab and Sindh are not marred.

Despite the fact that women were prevented from voting at several places, the KP elections have brought the campaigners for women’s rights a victory they richly deserved. The scale of women’s defiance of the powerful patriarchs encourages the hope that before long it will be impossible to deny women’s right to franchise anywhere.

The process will surely be expedited by the ECP’s landmark decision to order fresh election in KP-95, where women had been barred from voting in the recent by-election. It is a victory for both the voiceless women of Lower Dir and the intrepid activists who stood up for them across the country. The anti-women forces are unlikely to accept defeat and therefore the need for the democratic activists to remain vigilant cannot be over-emphasised.

Published in Dawn, June 4th, 2015

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