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Local Bodies elections 2005: an exercise in politics or confusion?

The verdict has come in. Pakistanis will again have power ``devolved "to them in three phases beginning on August 18th and ending on September 29th. The local bodies' elections will be conducted all over the country barring the Federal capital of Islamabad and the military cantonments. Under the Mushraff government, local bodies' elections are being conducted for the second time, the first being in 2000 when too the military cantonments and Islamabad were left out of the electoral exercise. As the country prepares to go to polls starting Aug 18th with the nomination papers for the first phase already being filed, non partisan international observers getting ready to observer the elections, it is important to first draw a political sketch from the point of view of the citizen and the candidate. This comment paper seeks to establish that there are a number of ambiguities connected to the entire exercise. It also seeks to advocate that in order for elections to be participatory they need to be conducted in an environment where political parties are allowed to function and perform..

Historically local government gift of Pakistani military.

Local governments have existed in the Indian subcontinent for many centuries, with the first municipal corporation set-up in Madras in 1688 by the East India Company. In 1842, the Conservancy Act which led to the formation of sanitary committees for garbage disposal became the first formal measure of municipal organization which applied to the Bengal Presidency. The 1907 Decentralization Commission recommended the appointment of non-official Chairmen of municipal committees, a recommendation which was endorsed and extended further by the 1925 Simon Commission set up to assess the performance of local self-government. The 1935 Government of India Act allowed provincial autonomy and permitted provinces to frame legislation on local government systems.

After the partition of 1947, local government systems and Pakistani military dictators have had a directly proportional relationship. In 1947, when Pakistan was chalked out, the few developed local government systems that were there were confined to Punjab. Wherever local government existed, it was not based on adult franchise. Its agenda and budget was under severe bureaucratic control of the Deputy Commissioner who played a critical role in determining its policy. The period 1958 to 1969 saw the imposition of Pakistan's first Martial Law and the establishment of a military government as well as the development of an extensive elected system of local government. The military government after disbanding the provincial and national governments realized that there was a need for at least a resemblance of involvement of the people in their own affairs. This gave rise to the Basic Democracies System providing for a new local government system across the country through which members were elected. In urban areas, town committees were set up for towns having a population of less than 14,000.

Local government structure under the Basic Democracies system

In the Basic Democracies System, a District Council was created, consisting of an Electoral College of which all Chairmen of Union Councils, town and union committees were members, removing the distinction between urban and rural areas. The District Council had 28 obligatory and 70 optional functions and powers to levy taxes. Its main purpose was to coordinate the activities of all local councils and municipal committees under its jurisdiction.

The Basic Democracies system was seen as a substitute for universal suffrage and served as an Electoral College to elect the President and the assemblies. However, with the fall of the Ayub Khan regime, to which the system was closely associated, it fell into disfavor.

Besides, the first general elections of 1970 and the separation of East Pakistan from West Pakistan resulted in the formation of an altogether new system of government in the country. Ironically though, the proposed elections to be held under the People's Local Government Ordinance of 1975 promulgated by Pakistan's first democratically elected government and meant to elect town and municipal committees (as well as councils in the rural area), were never held.

Lending credence to the conclusion that local governments have been the gift of the military government, General Zia ul Haq conducted local governments. The local government structures were revived in 1979.

Local government structures under the Zia regime

Under the 1979 ordinance, there were four levels of municipal government in the urban areas: town committees, municipal committees, municipal corporations and metropolitan corporations. Members of the council used to elect the senior officers of these councils and the controlling authority was the elected house. There was a three-tier system of local government in operation in Pakistan in the rural areas, where Union Councils, Tehsil or Taluka Councils and District Councils were supposed to exist. However, provincial governments had in practice usually abolished the middle-tier, the Tehsil/Taluka level. As a result mainly Union Councils and District Councils existed, which were elected on the basis of adult franchise. The elected members elected the Chairmen of these councils themselves.

The period since 1985 had seen five general elections enabling the people to choose members of the provincial and national assemblies. In the absence of elected assemblies however, local governments were the only popularly elected bodies and thus played important political and developmental roles. After the election of Senators and members of the provincial and national assemblies, the role of local governments had been substantially marginalized. These elected representatives had taken over some functions which local governments used to perform. Specific federal and provincial level programs that were directed at elected provincial and federal members of parliament, such as the Five Point Program of the Junejo Government (1985-1988), the Peoples Program of the first Benazir Bhutto Government and other such programs had in many ways intervened in the evolution of proper and improved local government. The doling out of developmental funds to the parliamentarians also significantly hampered the role of the local government structures.

Local government structures under the Mushraff regime

With the coming of the Mushraff government, the National Reconstruction Bureau (NRB) was constituted that worked on a number of things, the most widely debated perhaps being the devolution plan and the Police Ordinance. In his very first public address to the nation, General Mushraff un-veiled a seven point agenda for nation building, of which the sixth point was `` Devolution of power to the grass roots level" The NRB set to work on it and the devolution plan was unfolded under which local government elections were conducted in 2000-1. An important point to mention is that the devolution plan has been placed in the Sixth schedule of Constitution thus requiring the approval of the President before any amendments can be made.

The provincial governments promulgated the Local Government Ordinance, 2001 in their respective provinces to install a new integrated Local Government System with effect from 14th August 2001 to function within the provincial framework and adhere to the Federal and Provincial laws. The new system provides three-tier local government structure.

At the top tier, there is a single integrated local government called District Government. The district government consists of Zila Nazim and District Administration. The District Administration, which comprises district offices including sub-offices at tehsil level of the Provincial Government departments decentralized to the District Government, is responsible to the District Nazim.

The middle tier, the Tehsil, has Tehsil Municipal Administration headed by the Tehsil Nazim. The Tehsil Municipal Administration includes the offices and sub-offices of the Urban Local Councils established under the repealed Local Government Ordinance 1979, offices and sub-offices of Local Government & Rural Development, Public Health Engineering and Housing & Physical Planning Departments of Provincial Government entrusted to it for administrative and financial management.

At the lower tier, the Union Administration, which is a body corporate, covers the rural as well as urban areas across the whole district. It consists of Union Nazim, Naib Union Nazim and three Union Secretaries and other ancillary staff.

The NRB's website educates the citizen that the ``coordination between the three tiers is ensured through the following arrangements:

The Zila Council in a common district or in a city district, apart from reserved seats for women, peasants & workers and minorities, consists of Union Nazims of all the unions in the district or the city district. Similarly the Tehsil/Town Council, apart from reserved seats for women, peasants & workers and minorities, consists of Naib Union Nazims of all the unions in the tehsil in a common district or in the town in a city district. This provides vertical linkages between the three tiers of the local governments i.e. the Union, Tehsil, and District. Union Nazim and Naib Union Nazim are elected as joint candidates to the Union Council, which consists of twenty-one elected members against general and reserved seats. "

The Local Government System envisaged formula-based fiscal transfers to the districts through Provincial Finance Awards. In addition, local governments are allowed to levy local taxes/fees from a specified list. No import/export tax or tax on movement of goods through a district had been imposed.

Amendments in the Local Government Ordinance.

Presumably on the experience of the local bodies' structure of the previous five years, amendments were made. 78 sections in the Punjab LGO 2001 were amended; 90 sections in the NWFP LGO 2001; 88 sections in the Balochistan LGO 2001; and 81 sections in the Sindh LGO 2001 were amended. As mentioned earlier, the LG is included in the Sixth Schedule of the constitution and thus requires the approval of the President before the provinces can bring about amendments. These amendments have been studied in greater detail by political analysts and some of them have been termed regressive such as the decrease in the seats for women and religious minorities. The other amendments appear to be geared towards strengthening provincial set ups at the cost of the local tier. Some of these amendments are:

1 Making the provincial chief minister the absolute authority in his domain and placing the district and local government institutions under his tight control.

2 Curtailment of the term of local government to four years from five years.

3 Giving special powers to the civil administration officials to enforce special laws and impose penalties on violators.

4 The Nazim through the senior district officers would appoint inspectors for the enforcement of special laws by imposing fines and penalties through a ticketing system. However, the district officers would be the controlling authority of these inspectors instead of the Nazim.

5 Nazims and Naib Nazims at all levels will not hold the same office for more than two consecutive terms. Sixty days before the elections Nazims, Naib Nazims and all councils would stand dissolved.

6 The provincial chief secretary would appoint officers as caretakers to perform the functions and exercise the powers of the Nazims of the respective local governments for 60 days.

7 The chief minister when feels that any order of the Zila Nazim or Tehsil Nazim or union Nazim is not in conformity with law or against the interest of people could suspend such order. Zila Nazim or Tehsil Nazim or union Nazim will have the opportunity to explain his position before the Provincial Local Government Commission (PLGC). On its recommendation, the chief minister would take a final decision on the suspended order. If no action is taken within 90 days of the suspension of the order or decision, such order or decision will stand restored.

8 The chief minister can also call for information and reports from local governments in the districts as required by the provincial government or district government through the Tehsil municipal officer.

9 The district coordination officer of the district government, to be appointed by the provincial government, could seek recourse in writing to the PLGC where he thinks that the Zila Nazim's order/decision is motivated or unlawful.

10 The chief minister has also been empowered to suspend or set aside a resolution of Zila or Tehsil or union council if in his opinion the resolution is not in conformity with law or is against the interest of the people. The PLGC will review the matter and submit its report to the chief minister for final decision on the matter. If no action were taken within 90 days of the suspension of the resolution, it would stand restored.

11 Where in the opinion of the chief minister a Nazim, district, Tehsil or Union, is deliberately avoiding or abstaining willfully or failing to comply with the CM directions, he may suspend the Nazim for a period not exceeding 90 days for the reasons recorded and conveyed to the Nazim.During this period the provincial government will conduct inquiry on the matter through PLGC that will submit its report to the chief minister. In case of the PLGC recommendation endorsing chief minister's action, the Nazim could be removed.

12 According to another amendment approved, Tehsil Nazim in respect of Tehsil municipal officer will be the reporting officer whereas Zila Nazim will act, as first countersigning officer while the secretary local government will serve as second countersigning officer. DCO will record in a separate part of the performance evolution report (also known as ACR) his evaluation about the TMO's ability to collect and compile information.

The provincial government will establish finance commission to make recommendations to the governor for a formula for the distribution of resources between the provincial government and the local governments.

Confusion for the citizen and the candidate

Under the LG 2001, local bodies' elections were conducted and with the completion of their term new elections were announced. Technically, the term of the local government officials ended on Aug 15th 2005. Much has been written about the experience of the local governments with the NRB circles terming it as a positive experience and the opposition parties criticizing it, with some what of balanced takes by the media and civil society groups. This analysis in the age of the internet is but a click away and therefore this comment paper would not like to concentrate on it. Since the purpose of this note is to document the ambiguity surrounding the entire exercise of conducting local elections in 2005, it is important to mention the following:

1. Ambiguities over the announcement of the schedule of the local bodies.

It was long announced that local bodies elections would be conducted in a ``free and fair manner" in 2005. Since the beginning of the year, thus, after every fortnight, the promise of the announcement of local bodies schedule was made to the citizens through the media. The Pakistani newspapers reader was also told in Feb that elections are going to be conducted from March June with the schedule to be announced on March 23rd then, from April to June and then deafening silence and then mid June. The schedule was finally announced on July 1st 2005.

2. Issue of administrators and caretakers.

The NRB and the provincial governments also locked horns on the issue of appointment of administrators .The provincial Chief Ministers were of the opinion that in order to ensure ``free and fair elections " it was imperative that the present Nazims should be removed and administrators should be appointed in the districts. These administrators should be bureaucrats. The local government tiers were not happy with this suggestion and citizens saw a lot of heated debated between the local and provincial setups over this issue. The NRB was also of the opinion that administrators should not be appointed .The LG 2001 had no such provision. It was argued that the Election Commission of Pakistan who had since been given the responsibility of conducting local bodies elections would ensure that ``free and fair elections were conducted" just as they were supposed to do this for general elections. Presentations articulating both the positions were given to the Prime Minster and even the President. Some political analysts believe that the NRB and the local tiers were fighting a loosing battle as the main instigator of the administrators demand was the Punjab Chief Minister who himself and his family was very well entrenched in the ruling party. The matter was finally settled by the decision to appoint ``caretakers " It is not clear to the average citizen as to what is the difference between caretakers and administrators as to the citizen perhaps having a bureaucrat as caretaker or administrators is one and the same thing.

3. Elections or no elections?

While the debate of schedule and administrators/caretakers was happening, the very question of whether or not elections will be conducted was also raised. 150 members of the National Assembly signed a letter demanding that the financial accountability of the Nazims must be conducted and that until that is done local bodies elections should be postponed. Another reason given for local bodies' postponement was also the floods that had hit the country. However, the election schedule was announced on July 1st 2005 as mentioned earlier.

4. Islamabad and the military cantonments.

At the time of local bodies' election in 2000-1, it was announced that elections would be conducted in the Federal capital of Islamabad but not simultaneously as the rest of the country. Different statements regarding the probable time for conducing elections in Islamabad were given, with civil society organizations clamoring to have elections but five years passed and power did not reach the grassroots of the Islamabad area. Neither did it reach the grassroots of the military cantonments.

There was a ray of hope just before the announcement of the local bodies schedule in 2005, with the NRB Chairman vowing that this time around elections will be conducted in Islamabad and the cantonments. There were also media reports regarding demarcation of areas in both these areas. On June 15th 2005, it was reported that Rs 244.482 million had been sought for local government in Islamabad and then on Friday June 17th it was announced that local bodies elections in Islamabad have been `postponed till October 2005" Similarly work on demarcation of boundaries etc in the military cantonments had started as early as April 2005 but in the schedule announced on July 1 st military cantonments were not included and later it was announced that they will also be postponed.

5. Party based or non party?

The local bodies' election in 2005, as the previous ones during the Mushraff regime, are to be conducted on non party basis. While various advocacy groups have asked as to how elections can be conducted without parties, this is a different valid debate. The confounding point here is that whether these elections are really party based or non party? While the local government ordinance clearly states that elections will be on non party basis, parties have gone ahead and announced the names of their groups including the ruling part the Pakistan Muslim League. The PML will introduce its candidates in the local bodies' elections with the name of Roshan Khyal (enlightened moderates), the PPP with Awam Dost, Jamaat-e-Islami as Khidmat group , PML-N as Watan Dost, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement as Haq Parast, ANP as Khidmatgar and JUI (F) as Islam Dost.

The Election Commission of Pakistan has not taken note of this development in spite of almost daily media reports to the effect.

All these ambiguities do not facilitate the ``devolution of power to the grassroots level" as not only the citizen is confounded, but it also creates difficulties for the contestant. When the schedule is not announced, when it is not clear as to whether or not elections will be conducted in some parts of the area, when it is not even clear as to whether elections will be conducted or not, the average candidate is in doldrums to say the least. The code of conduct for the local elections was announced by the ECP on Thursday, July 14th while the nomination papers etc for the first phase of elections were to be submitted from July 16th. A close call indeed! Also, for a candidate, the code is only accessible through the media since the ECP till July 19 th had not printed it for dissemination. Till the announcement of the code, it was also not clear as to what was the campaign expenditure limit.

A lot can also be written about the code of conduct which bars public meetings and printing of posters etc for campaign. The only campaigning that a candidate can do is through holding ``corner meetings" Whether this is conducive to citizens making a free and fair choice is a serious question.

Making sense of it all

As an end note one is tempted to type out a list of recommendations or suggestions etc. In that case, the question that would be raised is who will consider those suggestions? The Election Commission of Pakistan who is unable to give the candidates a printed code of conduct nor implement it's own rule of parties being non party, or the political parties who are internally divided over whose brother would get the District Nazim seat or the various civil society organizations some of who have actually demanded postponement of elections on the pretext of floods?

Perhaps a suitable end note should be based on two demands.

Demand A: Strengthen Pakistani political parties. While parties have different challenges stemming from internal and external problems, the biggest challenge is that parties are expected to perform while in strait jackets.

Demand B: Systematic depoliticization needs to be stopped on an urgent basis. Before ``power can be devolved to the grassroots" political expression needs to be valued. Politics after all is an eight letter word and not a four lettered one.



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

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