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The "last minute rush" of candidates for filing the nomination papers has caught the political analysts by surprise

From SHAMIM AHMED RIZVI,
Islamabad
Dec 18 - 24, 2000

The forthcoming local bodies elections which will be held in 18 districts of the country by the end of this month will be the most thinly contested elections in the history of Pakistan. Only 42466 candidates have filed nominations for 20,076 LB seats of the 956 union councils. There are many seats for which no nomination has been filed. A large number of them are likely to be elected unopposed as there is no other contestant.

A press release issued by the Election Commission said that 42,466 candidates filed their nomination papers with the returning officers till the midnight of December 7 the last date for filing the papers. On an average only two candidates will be contesting for a union council seat in every district. Till December 6, the Election Commission had reportedly received only 20,000 nomination papers.

The "last minute rush" of candidates for filing the nomination papers has caught the political analysts by surprise as almost 50 per cent of the candidates filed their papers on the last date. Whatever the case, the "last minute rush" has saved the government from a severe embarrassment.

In Balochistan, where a total of 1,407 seats in 56 union councils of three districts are at stake, only 1,528 people have filed their nomination papers. This means that more than 85 per cent of the candidates will be elected unopposed. There may be a few cases where there is not even a single candidate available.

The highest number of nomination papers per seat have been filed in Punjab where 28,120 candidates have filed their papers for 11,550 seats of the 550 union councils.

In Sindh, the contest for 4,305 seats of the 205 union councils is going to be even less than one-to-one as only 7,599 candidates are contesting the election. It appears that quite a sizable number of seats will fall without any contest.

The situation in NWFP is not different from Sindh as only 5,219 candidates are running for 2,855 seats in the 135 union councils of three districts. Here too the contest is going to be less than one-to-one.

Out of a total of 42,466 candidates, 23,367 nomination papers have seen filed against 7,648 Muslim men seats. However, elections for the seats of "Nazim" and "Naib Nazim" are going to be a little tough as almost three people per seat are contesting. The Election Commission has received 3,302 nomination papers against 956 seats for "Nazims" and "Naib-Nazims".

The Election Commission press release was silent on the number of nomination papers filed for the women seats of the local councils which are being contested. Indications are that the number of females who are contesting is considerably less compared to the male candidates. There low turnout was mainly because of the social constraints in most of the 18 districts. In many union councils, no nomination papers were received for women and minority seats because of the backwardness of these areas.

"Though the scenario was already anticipated, these seats will remain vacant and the ECP will decide either to fill in these seats by holding bypolls or inviting fresh nomination papers, said a senior official. That process, he added, would be completed before August 14,2001 or as the ECP decides.

The government, however, is determined not to change the percentage-wise representation of women or minorities, though in many union councils there is hardly any person belonging to the minorities. "I think the government should review it in a manner either to create awareness amongst women or to change the percentage of women representation, as well as seats reserved for minorities, at the union council-level," said a senior official.

Commenting on the situation, a political analyst said that lack of interest in the polls could result in poor turnout at the polling stations. "It reminds me of the 1985 referendum of Gen. Zia-ul-Haq when the polling stations gave a deserted look," he observed.

Many of the 42466 candidates, who have jumped in the electoral foray, will be disqualified as they will not be able to pass the test of 19 stringent qualifications, prescribed by the National Reconstruction Bureau (NRB). Not only the contestants but the voters can also raise objections to the candidacy of the competitors and in several cases, they may be incapacitated for their past actions to cross the hurdle successfully.

'The qualifications are quite similar those spelt out in the Constitution for those contesting the national elections. A few persons could have been elected to the federal and provincial legislatures since 1985 had these provisions, incorporated by General Zia-ul-Haq, have been strictly applied. These have so far only existed on the statute book.

As a whole, the number of nomination papers are modestly low which showed the extent of public enthusiasm. Another factor contributing to this could be that the first phase of local government elections is being held in mostly backward areas of the country.

Additionally, the campaign of different political parties against the local government plan may also have contributed to the low filing of nomination papers. What impact it will have on the voter turnout is yet to be seen. However, despite rejection by the mainstream political parties of the local elections, the government has stood ground and gone ahead with the process. There is now little confusion left about the very holding of the phased polls. Circles close to General Musharraf have been consistently arguing that the elections would be held as scheduled and question of their postponement does not arise.

As the details of the nominations will pour in, a clear picture as to which politician, belonging to any side of the political divide, has sponsored his scions or nominees in the elections to grab a maximum number of these seats. The figure of nominations showed that there was an unusual rush on the last day of the process as more than 50% of them were submitted on that day.

The National Reconstruction Bureau has all along dismissed criticism of its district governments plan by almost all political parties and the bureaucracy as partisan and motivated. However, even while claiming that its radical restructuring would empower the people as never before and solve 90% of their problems at the district level, the NRB is yet to explain why the panacea has not thrilled the people.

The reasons include an utterly untenable exclusion of political parties from the process, a general disillusionment with politics and governance and, confusion about the constantly changing contours of the new system. Added constraints have been imposed by the inexplicable choice of some of the remotest areas to launch the plan from, the uncertainty triggered by NADRA's electoral rolls debacle and, finally, the extremely short notice and tight-schedule for the electoral process. Whatever the reasons, indifferent public response can cast dark shadows over the plan's future.