The Million Dollar Question

With the second Local Bodies elections about to be held under General Musharraf’s government the million dollar question needs no guessing. How fair? Everyone understands the significance of these elections. Their outcome will also be a barometer of how political parties will do in the 2007 provincial and national elections.

Otherwise too the Local Government is the foundation for the parliamentary system. In Pakistan, since its strengthening, for the citizens it has become the most significant point of inter-play between the citizens, the State and their elected representatives. In handling the routine practical matters affecting the life of the average citizen, the Local Government is likely to have the greatest impact on the daily life of the citizen.

The national ruling party the PML and MQM the major ruling party in the Sind government have both wanted to establish themselves as parties wanting to ‘play fair.’ The PML offered to work out steps for holding fair and free elections, along with the Opposition parties. The MQM actually held a meeting on Code of Ethics for the parties participating in the Local Bodies Elections. Both moves were essentially non-starters. Despite the removal of the elected district heads the Nazims to ensure a ‘level playing field’, the ruling party’s statement was not followed up by any concrete steps. As for the MQM most Opposition parties fear there can be no fair elections in Sind. They boycotted its Code of Ethics meeting. Only the ruling coalition members attended it.

The Opposition’s complaints are numerous. One, that reportedly dozens of provincial and over 25 MNAs are planning to contest the local bodies elections. These include serving ministers, ministers of state and parliamentary secretaries. But this appears to be in violation of Clause 152 (S) of the Local Government Ordinance, 2001. The clause reads that "the person should not use, directly or indirectly, for his election the platform, flag, symbol, affiliation and financial or material resources or support of a political, religious, ethnic or sectarian party, formation or organization." The Jamaat has recommended that the three main opposition parties PPP, PML-N and the MMA jointly appeal before the Election Commission. They would demand that all federal ministers intending to participate in the local bodies elections must be asked to now resign from their posts.

Obviously those contesting the polls should not be holding any provincial or federal cabinet position. If they are holding the position then they would certainly use the State machinery and other State resources to their own advantage.

Two, that contrary to earlier instructions that no postings and transfers of administrative officials will be made immediately before and after the announcement of the Election schedule, were violated by the provincial governments. Reportedly transfer orders were issued in bulk issued within the police department few hours before the Election Schedule was announced. In fact in some cases these orders were issued even after the announcement of the Election schedule. The Opposition is demanding the Election Commission to reverse the orders.

Three, that in Sind the harassment of the political opposition continues.

For example the contrast in how the police deals with the ruling Muslim League and its allies and with the Opposition parties illustrates the point. The Jamaat is complaining that 100 of its activists have been rounded up for raising slogans against MQM parliamentarians while the police has still not registered an FIR against those nominated by the JI in the target killing of JI leaders. Jamaat claims its leader Tajammul Hussain, who was gunned down recently, had been getting threats before.

PPP and MMA are both complaining that city of Karachi is being turned into a ‘no-go area’ for the Opposition.

The MQM Governor of Sind is unlikely to want fair play in the Local bodies elections. The PPP is accusing him of “distributed posts of nazims and naib nazims among his “own party members and the allies dummy politicians…”

The Jamaat is demanding his dismissal. They also want the provincial Home Department in neutral hands. Currently it is under MQM control.

The Chief Minister of Sind recently went on an election campaign to his hometown in Mithi where he announced that "We would ensure fairness and transparency in the polls so that the opposition could not make unnecessary hue and cry and hurl baseless allegations on the government." He also reportedly declared that the PML-backed candidates for the slots of Nazims, Naib Nazims and councilors will be elected unopposed in the forthcoming local bodies elections. Clearly the State machinery is already being used to promote the ruling party’s winning chances.

In Sind the objective of the MQM is to win the Nazim seat from the Jamaat nazim and keep the PPP out. In the case of the Jamaat the nazim who completed his tenure on June 30, the MQM government used all means available to prevent him from implementing his developments projects. General Musharraf himself had to intervene to ensure that the Jamaat Nazim completes his term.

The Jamaat’s own track record of opting for rule of law as opposed to opting for the ‘bully’s rule’ is not an impressive one. Nevertheless the army-controlled State must move beyond settling political scores and mentoring favorites and rule of law must be upheld. This alone will help to stave off the crisis of credibility that the State currently faces.

Unless the Election Commission takes action on the legitimate complaints of the Opposition, the incumbent governments undeterred will use the incumbency factor to their own advantage. Holding of genuinely fair elections would then be unlikely.

Meanwhile mindful of how all the ruling parties in the province are likely to use the incumbency factor to their advantage, a joint ARD election strategy especially in the Punjab may emerge. There are some indications that the PPP-PML-N may enter into a seat adjustment arrangement especially in the Punjab. Such an arrangement would increase the Opposition’s chances of denying a clean sweep to the PML in Punjab.

The devolution process launched by the Musharraf government to strengthen the Local Government has been a significant achievement. But along with the administrative infrastructure there is need to have a credibly elected and smoothly functioning political structure. How this second Local Bodies election is conducted will affect the credibility of the Local Bodies system. It will also be a strong pointer to the government’s handling of the 2007 elections.

Ultimately General Parvez Musharraf will get the credit or discredit for holding fair’ or unfair the Local Bodies elections. After all he himself calls the shots ultimately. And he is the final architect of Pakistan’s current political dispensation. General Musharraf is also the man who calls the shots in the army-created PML. His uniform enables him to ‘manage,’ as the ultimate referee the contending groups within the PML. In Sind there is the Pagara- Arbab Raheem faction and otherwise the Farooq Leghari clan, Humayun Akhtar’s group and many others. In Baluchistan there have been problems between the Chief Minister and PML members. These groups stay together because they believe under the military umbrella their respective political interests will be protected and promoted.

The uniform also helps General Musharraf to manage the ruling coalition with the PML, MQM and the army-created PPP.

Ultimately the army-created political dispensation is not evolving into a cohesive political force. The Establishment, whose own future in Pakistan’s power paradigm, remains tied to that of the ruling coalition, continues to promote the party plus the coalition.

In such a situation promoting the much needed ‘rules of the game’ which can promote an inclusive, functioning and stable parliamentary democracy in Pakistan, would be unlikely. Also for as long as there is no reconciliation between the army-dominated State and all the Opposition parties the crisis of credibility of the Pakistani State is likely to continue unabated. And without a credible State , credible democracy is an impossibility.