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Lessons from the Local Bodies Elections

On the eve of the conclusion of the second phase of polls for local bodies candidates, reports are being filed by national, international and media observers of the degree of fairness of the polls and the general conditions that were observed on the 18th and 25th of this month when the country went to the polls. It is a matter of grave concern that on both of these days there was violence with 33 people dying on 25th August only , not to mention other election related casualties and violence. As the Election Commission is declaring the names of the successful candidates, appeals are being filed against the decisions, congratulatory messages being exchanged amongst various quarters accompanied by ``pats on the back", individu-land would like to comment on some of the lessons that can be drawn from this entire exercise of conducting local bodies elections .

Of course, the phase of election of the District Nazim and Naib Nazim remains, but still there is much to learn from the current state of affairs.

At the onset,individu-land would like to state that the very fact that local bodies elections were conducted in 2005 in spite of the problems between the provincial governments and the National Reconstruction Bureau, the squabble over the issue of appointment of caretakers or administrators, calls for first conducting a financial accountability of sorts of the outgoing elected officials, letters by elected parliamentarians calling for postponement etc is commendable. While it cannot be said that these elections were heavily contested in all parts of the country. the unopposed candidates in Sindh and Balochistan being a case in point, it can be said that it revealed frictions within different political alliances and parties and also showed that the local tier has been strengthened to such an extent that even sitting Federal Ministers were desirous of contesting the elections or at least have a close relative contest. While strengthening of the local tier is a positive development, the fact that it is has been done at the expense of the other levels is a cause for concern. Of course, the recent amendments brought about by the provincial governments have literally made a provincial stooge of the District Nazim, the latter still has enough of a role to be useful in the upcoming general elections. Thus, the decision of holding local bodies' elections is a positive one and these elections should definitely be conducted in Islamabad and military cantonments.

The conduct of local bodies' elections is, in individu-land's opinion, also positive because it shattered the myth of holding non party elections. Ever since the Local Bodies Elections Schedule was announced on June 30th, parties got involved. Initially they organized and supported their candidates under different groups such as Awam Dost, Haq Parast and Roshan Khiyal etc but very soon this fig leaf was also abandoned and at various meetings and in newspapers party leaders including that of the ruling party openly declared that so and so was a party backed candidate. Meetings in the Chief Ministers' Houses left little to the imagination and even the President openly supported the candidates of the ruling party at a public meeting in the Frontier. This of course was a clear violation of the code of conduct issued by the Election Commission of Pakistan on July 13th 2005 and while political analysts were concerned about the violation, they felt that it essentially reinforced what they have been maintaining all along. that there is no such thing as a party less election. Political parties are the vehicle through which the political voice of the people is expressed and an election is the time where the public voice is heard loud and clear. To ban the very tool that raises this voice is foolish at best and impossible at worst. This is exactly what came out during the current exercise. In addition to the fact that it is impossible , non party elections also reinforce birdarism .Research has revealed that in some areas of the country where parties were not very strong, votes were cast along caste lines with Maliks not voting for Sheikhs and Sheikhs not voting for Maliks to mention just one example. It is therefore hoped that as electoral pundits of this country sit down to review the 2005 local bodies' electoral exercise, they would take into account this factor. Even the Acting Chief Election Commissioner urged for a review of this decision to have non party elections in future.

Another lesson that has been learnt from this electoral exercise is that six ballot papers which were given to the voter were just too many! For starters, there were a number of areas including major cities like Rawalpindi, Hyderabad and Quetta where five ballot papers were given out instead of six. Election observers have also reported that the voters found this to be time consuming and confusing as by the time the voter used to reach the ballot box, s/he would have forgotten the election symbols of the candidates they wanted to support. Research has revealed that that there was an increase in the number of spoilt votes in this election as compared to the previous local election .Most of these spoilt votes were votes that were not stamped at all i.e. they were blank. Random intervening of voters at various polling stations around the country revealed that one reason for this was that since they were given 5/6 ballot papers, people thought that the polling staff was making them cast bogus votes. So the people reported that they stamped one ballot paper while the other ballot papers they left blank so as not to engage in what they thought was multiple voting. One would like to urge for a re- think of having so many categories of candidates for each Union Council by clubbing them together thereby reducing the number of ballot papers that the voter needs to stamp. While on the subject of voters, individu-land would like to urge the Election Commission to re think the practice of using electoral rolls that are outdated. We fail to understand as to why the 2000-1 electoral rolls were used instead of the October 2002 electoral rolls thereby disenfranchising a number of people and causing a lot of confusion and anguish. Of course the Election Commission has repeatedly declared that they asked voters through advertisements to register for the local bodies elections but the flaw in this was that a number of citizens thought that since their names were on the 2002 electoral rolls ,there was no need to register again for the 2005 local elections. Conducting elections ,be it local or general is a gigantic task as the Election Commission of Pakistan is well aware of. To further complicate this huge task by such steps is not very intelligent.

Another lesson to be drawn from this exercise is that the Election Commission needs to be in a position of strength whereby it can take notice and action of the violations of it's code of conduct. Whether it is the media, political parties, citizens or non governmental organizations, all have repeatedly pin pointed blatant violations of the ECP code of conduct but to no avail. Whether it be the use of state resources for election campaigning, nomination of candidates by different governmental quarters, holding of large public meetings instead of the ECP prescribed corner meetings ,banning of women from polling etc they all have been reported to the ECP but very little has been done. Even on election day, polling stations were taken over by certain political groups, mobile phones were being used inside the polling stations not just by agents and voters but even the polling staff, male candidates entering the female polling stations etc are all violations of the code of conduct that the ECP did not do much about. Individu-land would not like to join the chorus of condemning the ECP but would instead, like to urge for a need for reforms in the Election Commission starting with basics like having a full time Chief Election Commissioner.

Having said this, it is indeed positive to note that the ECP has called for re polling in areas where women have been banned from voting. We would also like to, draw the attention of the ECP to the Malik Yar Batozai area of Pishin district in Balochistan where at three polling stations of the area no women cast their votes as a result of a jirga decision urging them not to do so. While on the subject of women voting, it is tragic to note that the government of the day has to negotiate with a tribal jirga to allow women to vote. None other than the Honorable Advisor to the Prime Minister on Women's Issues negotiated with the jirga and successfully too.

Another lesson to be learnt from this electoral exercise is that female polling stations must have women police. At a number of female polling stations around the country there were no women police and thus when a fight broke out between the female polling agents, the male police declared that they could not do any thing about it. At the APWA Girls High School polling station at Quetta female polling agents attacked the female Presiding Officer. At the Women Technical College polling station in the same city, the women broke the windows of the school but the male police was not able to do much.

Free and fair elections are important for the political health of any nation. However, a distinction needs to be made between free and fair elections and free and fair polling of votes, the former referring to the electoral laws and system and the latter referring to casting of votes in a peaceful, coercion free environment. The latest electoral exercise revealed that there are serious deficiencies in both and the sooner they are addressed the better.




individualland.com (Last Updated Wednesday, 26 October 2016)

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