Democracy, thou art a wreck

Spearhead Analysis – 06.01.2014

By Sarah Eleazar
Research Analyst, Spearhead Research – Pakistan

Democracy, thou art a wreckCritics of Pakistan’s ruling party pointed out, at the culmination of the government’s 100th-day in power, that far from upholding democratic values, making true its election campaign promises and providing relief to a people tired of being associated with the seedy underbelly of global everything-that-is-corrupt, the government had offered its people copious amounts of eyewash. Pakistan’s challenges and problems, far from hidden, remain far from resolved. The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz came to power on May 11 knowing it had to salvage a sinking ship- yet it has fogged up the spy glasses and called it a day.

The Election Commission of Pakistan, on Saturday, announced that the local government elections in the Punjab would have to be delayed- probably for another six to eight months at least. The usual naysayers had predicted this a long while back. The PML-N did not want to hold the local government elections till its policies had had some time to stopper the ship’s multiple leaks. It had recommended party-less elections along the lines of the previous local body elections but the Lahore High Court ruled in favor of party-based polls on a petition by the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf. The government’s performance, so far abysmal, meant that PM Nawaz Sharif would not be giving his 11-0-clock victory speech again.

The PTI’s second petition in the LHC, however, did not seem to be well thought out. It challenged delimitations in the province conducted by the government in December under the Punjab Local Government Act 2013 as a contravention of the Constitution that confers the authority to conduct delimitations on the ECP. It also alleged that the delimitations had been conducted too quickly. The LHC ordered the Punjab government to amend Sections 8 and 9 of its Act to allow the ECP to conduct delimitations instead.

On paper, the Punjab government had only tried to facilitate the ECP by fulfilling the prerequisites it had set out: draft bill, conduct delimitations, appoint returning officers. In actuality, delimitations conducted by the government are considered an effectual method of pre-poll rigging. While the PTI won the battle, it lost the war, as Law Minister Sanaullah pointed out at a press conference last week.

If the government is to follow the LHC’s ruling, and it has committed to it cheerfully, according to rules of parliamentary procedure, it would take six months to amend the PLGA. It would take the ECP another four to five months to carry out delimitations. The National Assembly has called for local government elections after a fresh census. If that happens, the local government elections will be delayed for an indefinite period of time.

The Supreme Court had ruled that local body polls in the Punjab would be held on January 30. The nomination papers had been filed, campaigning had begun full swing and symbols would have been allotted in the next few days. All of that, an exercise in futility.

This year was supposed to have been the year power was returned to the people…the year Town Hall became abuzz with the essence of democracy De Tocqueville wrote about. Instead the situation poses two questions.

Do we want democracy so badly that we would allow it to be held hostage by ruling parties? And should the government and judiciary give in to politics of agitation and confrontation.

On May 11, the Pakistan Peoples Party took a bow with one thing to its credit- it was the first government to have completed its tenure. It wasn’t the best government. The judiciary had ousted a prime minister and political scandals had piled on top of each other. And in spite of Tahirul Qadri and Imran Khan’s threats of revolution, all institutions had joined hands to ensure that, come what may, the democratic system would not get derailed.

Local government elections, in several ways, hold more credence with the masses than general elections. The state’s third tier is the one closest to the masses and could also be the effective. Not only do local bodies provide the common man a platform to voice his views but an assurance that his voice is being heard. The Punjab governor recently lauded the local body system of Europe saying that he would love to see massive devolution of power to the local bodies.

The PLGA does not allow for a lot of power to be devolved to the local government. Firstly, all development funds will be spent on the advice of the MPAs and secondly, a lot of portfolios have in fact been subsumed within the provincial framework. The government did announce district education authorities that would function at the third-tier level, but they too have been met with fierce opposition from the teachers’ unions.

Despite the almost toothless local government system the Punjab would get, it would be in line with the previous debate- allow democracy to continue even if it stops serving its purpose.

Following the LHC’s ruling, the PTI has come up with fresh demands- conduct local body elections now, use old delimitations if required. Using old delimitations to conduct the local body elections on January 30 would not only contravene the Constitution that requires delimitations before the elections, but also the LHC order that states that the government must first amend the PLGA. Best case scenario- the elections are held in September.

By then, the PML-N government will have had time to implement several of its welfare policies and set its cogs in motion. Unless other parties do nothing but campaign vociferously for the next six to eight months they might just get overshadowed by the PML-N, which commands the center and the Punjab.

2014 began with a blow to the democratic process. With a big question mark above the subject of local government elections, there are two possibilities. One, the ECP files a petition challenging the LHC’s order with the Supreme Court. The ECP can state that it lacks the manpower to conduct the delimitations and had conferred that authority over to the government itself, or it can start hiring people right away. Either way, January 30 will not see a transfer of power from the DMG/PAS to elected representatives.