Both Punjab and Sindh were not supportive of local bodies’ elections. The provincial governments in two provinces resisted these elections for a good five years, and had courts not assertively intervened they would have persevered in that state of denial – may be forever. But now that results of the first phase of local bodies’ polls have come, these very governments must be pondering how much out of tune with ground realities they were.
In Punjab, the ruling PML (N) has emerged as a clear victor; its victory expected to expand as many independent winners, who were refused party tickets to avoid infighting, are likely to return to the fold. In Sindh, the PPP has won hands down. Will this voting trend persist in the two provinces? There is not much in evidence to say ‘no’, at least in Punjab. In Sindh, given that the first phase mainly covered rural Sindh, where the MQM has a meagre vote bank the PPP prevailed.
However, elections in the next two phases, which will include Karachi and Hyderabad, may throw up a mixed picture. But that said, the fact cannot be denied that the outcome of the first phase in Sindh, even when not very different from expectations, is certainly a huge morale booster for the PPP. No wonder then, felicitating the winning party candidates, an elated Asif Ali Zardari mocked the ‘self-styled analysts who predicted gloom and doom for the PPP’, exclaiming his party is ‘not only far from down and out, it is also alive and kicking’.
To rest of the contenders to grass-root power in the local bodies polls have been delivered mortifying upsets. If for the principal contender for power in Punjab, Imran Khan’s PTI, the outcome of the first phase is heart-breaking, for others it is no less than a kiss of death.
Consider, the Jamaat losing in the Union Council of Mansoora, Lahore and the PML (Q) in Chaudhry brothers’ heartland of Gujrat. And, four years on, the Sharifs ‘Takht-e-Lahore, which appeared so much vulnerable in the wake of Imran Khan’s October 30, 2011 Minar-i-Pakistan mammoth public meeting, appears to be fully secured.
Let the losing parties conduct introspection as to what went wrong with their popularity. Maybe, the PTI finds out that its preference for the electables alienated its committed voter. Maybe, the Jamaat learns that its ideological appeal ceases to be any more relevant to the needs of time and space. Maybe, the Chaudhrys’ PML (Q) feels it has run out of its steam and needs to rest for the time being. Maybe, money too played its role in an effective and meaningful manner. But certainly not in a big way – its time would come when elections are held to elect office-bearers to this third tier of governance.
However, the results do suggest that our political parties have lost their federal character and have increasingly become regional entities. Given the considerably enhanced provincial autonomy granted to the federating units under the 18th Constitutional Amendment, this trend has the inherent potential to undermine the cause of national integration and unity.
Were these non-party elections, the message would have been anything but not that the PPP is confined to Sindh and PML (N) to Punjab. Also, since these are party-based elections and the winners are expected to remain beholden to their party leaders in higher echelons and provincial assemblies, the much-needed devolution of power to the third-tier of governance may remain a pipedream.
Not much is left in the plate of third-tier governance to deliver at the people’s doorsteps. Not only will important subjects of education and healthcare remain in control of bureaucrats instead of elected members, the disbursement of funds will also lie with the provincial governments. It is possible that realising their own people have been elected to local bodies, the provincial rulers may decide to devolve these powers to the menders of the third-tier. But that said, the positivity this electoral exercise has lent to the political system cannot be trivialised.
First and foremost, it has brought democratic system within the reach of the common man, breaking down the taboo of politics as a political-family preserve and game of the rich. In Faisalabad, for instance, those who lost both from the PML (N) and PTI platforms included the brother of a sitting state minister and the brother of the chief minister’s special assistant. Most importantly, this very vast exercise involving tens of thousands of candidates, thousands of polling stations, many among them declared sensitive, and millions of voters played out largely as a well-managed show.
Of course, there were incidents of violence at some places, the most tragic being in Khairpur when about a dozen people were killed in violent clashes. And no less significantly, it also tends to refurbish the image of the Election Commission of Pakistan, which of late had taken a lot of unjustified battering, and effectively takes out the sting of the allegations that 2013 general elections were rigged.