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    Limiting the playing field – Pakistan Today


    The Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa local body elections must be taken in context. The ruling Pakistan Tehreek Insaf (PTI) has been given a sharp rebuke by the people of a province that has been its stronghold in the last two general elections, as well as in the last local body elections.

    The presidential nature of the polls may have made matters worse. The oldest way of dealing with competing claims has been to let all contenders compete as independents, and for the government to adopt the winner as its own. In the prime ministerial system once prevalent, councilors were elected, and they them elected a chairman. Local body polls until recently were held on party-less basis, so all councilors were technically independents, free to throw their support to whoever they wanted, which used to be the party in power. It was a pretty poor chief minister who didn’t ensure that his party controlled all district councils and municipalities. However, those elected on party basis are stuck with the parity whose ticket they obtained.

    One reaction was by the PTI itself, with the Chairman, Imran Khan, dissolving all party bodies, and thus punishing three provincial organisations for the sins of the fourth. This raises the possibility that the dissolution was meant to bring about other changes within the party.

    The only party which really wants the local bodies is the PML(N), and that is because it has traditionally used them as a sort of substitute for a grassroots organization. Local councillors’ support has counted in all parties’ calculations, but most in the case of the PML(N). Especially in Punjab, where the next elections take place

    For example, the removal of HaleemAdil Sheikh as Sindh President came after he had been appointed in June. Aun Abbas Buppi had an even briefer period as South Punjab President, having been appointed in September, but has still had to make way for MakhdumKhusroBakhtiar.

    The appointment of ShafqatMahmood as Punjab President was doubly significant, for it came at the expense of Ejaz Chaudhry. He held office by virtue of election; his replacement is an appointee. As the next election is that of the Punjab local bodies, this is particularly significant. Shafqat was in charge of the PTI’s local bodies election campaign in 2016. The PTI lost badly, but it was in opposition then, and the PML(N) had exploited the perks of power. Now the boot should be on the other foot.

    There are two roadblocks to the Punjab elections. The first is the introduction of electronic voting machines.  The Election Commission of Pakistan has got a tough enough task on its hands to introduce EVMs in time for the next general election, due in 2023, let alone be able to do it in a local body election to be held by March. The second is the passage of a new Local Government Act, on which the provincial government has set its heart. That is not an obstacle as such, for if the Act is not passed in time, elections would be held under the present Act. However, that is not something the government would like.

    Everyone sees the coming Punjab election as important, not least to see if it confirms the result of the KP election. If indeed the KP electorate punished the central government for inflation and economic mismanagement, the Punjab electorate is likely to do the same. If it does, it will pave the ground for something that has been doing the rounds, the return of Mian Nawaz Sharif, who has been in the UK since March 2019, and earlier in jail since July 2018. So far, PML(N) leaders have denied that such a move is afoot, but if the PTI takes bad enough a beating in Punjab, then the possibility would grow.

    As it is, that rumors have started to do the rounds indicates that the idea is getting serious consideration in quarters which had one dismissed it utterly, so deep was their commitment to the PTI. However, while Imran was obedient enough and watchful enough of their interests, he was so woefully bad at governing that the image of those who had brought him was being affected.

    Because of that, it is being said that the PTI did not get sufficient support from the forces that brought to power. The PTI’s having done as well as it did showed, it feels, that it was still an important political force. However, the ability to operate at the local level depends on election results, in making sure pro-government chairmen are elected. There is a limited ability to handle individual council seats on a micro-level.

    One of the most significant developments is how far Imran Khan seems invested in the idea that the KP defeat was caused by nepotism, which led to the wrong selection of candidates, which in turn led to the resounding defeat which occurred. This analysis makes sense for Imran, since it precludes any blame from attaching to him, or the fecklessness of his economic management team.

    One of the problems with this is that local bodies are seen by candidates, not so much as a nursery of democracy, as a springboard for contesting provincial and even national elections. There are also those MPAs whose seat is safe, and who are virtually guaranteed a seat in the provincial cabinet, and who wish to have someone represent them in Islamabad. The solution to all of these issues is to have relatives electedcouncilor, MPA and MNA. Examples abound.

    Both the PPP and the PML(N) provide examples of this kind of dynasticism, down to the party leadership going to children. The PPP seems to be most advanced in this, with the third generation, in the shape of Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, now heading the party.

    The hereditary principle is not absolutely absent in other countries. India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh provide examples. Both India and Pakistan can show examples of third-generation CMs. Even in more developed democracies, the USA has seen two examples of father-and-son Presidents, while Canada’s PM is himself the son of a former PM.

    While politics is a demanding profession, practitioners see it as desirable. In Pakistan as well as the rest of the world, one of the things developed by a politician is a machine designed to fight elections. In developed democracies, parties control those machines, and thus can select candidates, but in Pakistan, the parties must find candidates who already have machines. They are the so-called ‘electables’: people with pre-existing machines.

    There is a certain recognition of .genetic predisposition in this, as the voters, or rather the people who actually make up the machine, think that a leader lost to old age or death passed on to a child, traits enabling him to be a winning candidate. Local bodies test this.

    However, for a party which refuses to accept this genetic logic, which is trying to break this, to fall prey to the same syndrome, is a comedown. As a result, the PTI will now have a separate committee to decide the ticket applications of relatives. Relatives have not been defined. Sometimes, even brothers may fiercely oppose each other. At the next election, they might be contesting for different assemblies, but on the same ticket.

    A lot of the time, the relative may be without credentials, but at the same time, the ticket may be an introduction, with the younger brother or son left to find his natural level. The PTI may find problems in Punjab local body elections, where deciding against MNAs’ or MPAs’ relatives might cost them support the party can ill afford, in either House.

    The PTI has apparently tied itself into all sorts of knots. The only party which really wants the local bodies is the PML(N), and that is because it has traditionally used them as a sort of substitute for a grassroots organization. Local councillors’ support has counted in all parties’ calculations, but most in the case of the PML(N), especially in Punjab, where the next elections take place.



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