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Politics & Policy

Local Bodies elections: Second phase




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More public enthusiasm this time than the first phase in December last

From Shamim Ahmed Rizvi,
Apr 02 - 08, 2001

With the conclusion of second phase of Local Bodies elections in 20 Districts of the four provinces in the country, the devolution of power plan and the idea of district government has taken a decisive step forward. There was considerably more public enthusiasm this time than the first phase in December last. The voters turn over and the number of candidates contesting elections was much higher this time as compared to first phase.

The turn over is generally believed to over 45 per cent of total votes though NADRA has claimed it be about 60 per cent. One reason for higher turn over is stated to be that the polls in the second phase had moved from rural areas to urban or semi-urban areas, but the realisation that the government was determined to implement the new system despite severe opposition and criticism of almost all the political parties and a comparatively better understanding of the intricacies of the system by the people is also responsible for the changed popular attitude.

The plan for devolution of power and responsibility with comprehensive police and administrative infrastructure was approved at a joint meeting of the National Security Council and the Federal Cabinet held in Islamabad in August 2000. It was decided to make Police Service of Pakistan (PSP) and District Management Group (DMG) subservient to the district government to be established under the devolution of power plan.

Perhaps no decision taken by the present government has been so widely criticised by people of all shades of opinion including those sympathetic to this regime, as its plan for devolution of power. All parties conference in Lahore participated by over three dozen political and religious parties including all the major political groups in the country like PPP, PML, Jamaat-I-Islami, ANP totally rejected the devolution plan while those outside the conference described the idea of district government as unworkable, half backed, practically impossible, too ambitious and too costly a system which the country cannot afford.

The government however, threw the idea for general public debate. For about 3/4 months the devolution of power plan was discussed and debated at all public forums and in the National Press, where the authors of plan took pains to explain the system and tried their best to remove public apprehensions on various points. As a result of this prolonged public debate lot of good suggestions came from experts. It brought lot of relief to ease the tense atmosphere when government agreed to accommodate some of the major suggestions made by the public during extensive debate in which lot of men of opinion, including intellectuals, retired bureaucrats and politicians participated.

The common thread between the two phases, however, was the large scale success of candidates backed albeit without using the party flag or symbolóby the established political parties. Thus, as was expected from day one, the non-party elections have been so in name only. It was also no surprise that candidates affiliated with the Pakistan People's Party and the Pakistan Muslim League (N) have done better than the others, particularly in Punjab and Sindh. Political pundits appear also to have been proved right in that the manner of its creation and questionable credentials of many of its leading lights will become a millstone around the PMLs so-called like-minded group.

CE Pervez Musharraf has often described the devolution plan, under which the local body elections have been held in selected districts, as a promising start of a new history. This is probably too ambitious a description for such a tentative experiment in local government. The result of polls specially held in the second phase has clearly established that the National Reconstruction Bureau's naive hopes of conguring up of a new and better group of leaders have not come true. With the third phase of the local bodies polls, unlikely to be any different, it is quite clear after the second phase that the present leadership will not only have to work with much the same set of people but also the same political parties in crafting the new political dispensation. That question marks hang over the credentials and political future of the top leadership of some of these parties becomes a crucial imponderable in considering the emerging political scenario.

This factor assumes critical importance because the elected local bodies, despite their manifest importance as the real grassroots delivers of public services, are only the bottom rung of the democracy ladder. As the next higher rungs are put in place, it will be interesting to observe how the ground realities thrown up by the local bodies polls are reconciled by the present leadership with its avowed resolve not to let the old corrupt lot return to power.