Can and will the locals govern?

 Political parties across the spectrum have questioned the military government's claim that elections to local councils in 18 of the 106 administrative districts in Pakistan, which they were barred from participating in, represent a return to "genuine democracy". The military government, on the other hand, insists that the purpose of the exercise is to create local bodies through "a devolution of power to the grass roots level". There are aspects of the elections that seem, on the face of it, to be reformist in intent, but there is also enough evidence to justify the charge levelled by the political parties that the military government is merely delaying democratic restoration through such stratagems.

The elections, the first of a three-phase schedule, held at the end of December 2000 under tight military supervision and severe campaign restrictions, introduced some new measures which the military says will ensure the political presence of various social groups. One-third of the seats on the councils were reserved for women, but women's activists and groups have scoffed at this 'cosmetic' measure, since women will merely provide the mask behind which the traditional male dominance of the political process can continue. Seats have also been reserved for other groups, such as non-Muslim minorities. The catch in the case of minorities is that they are only allowed to vote for a single representative on each council, prompting some Christian and Hindu organisations to boycott the polls.

Predictably, both the government and the political parties have conflicting versions of the success of the elections. Official figures claim a 46 percent voter turnout and Election Commission data shows that 21,890 candidates contested the 7648 non-reserved seats to the 956 councils for which voting took place. However, official figures also concede that 10 percent of the total seats, most of them reserved for minorities, were filled without contest because there were no rival candidates. Besides, as many as three-quarters of the seats reserved for non-Muslims remained vacant. Spokesmen of political parties were quick to question the official version. "There was little interest in these elections and we feel this exercise is actually aimed at prolonging the return to democracy", said a Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) official.

Clearly the dispute about the success of the election is crucially linked to the larger concern of political parties about the long-term intentions of the military government. Potentially, the military could adhere to the Supreme Court's two-year deadline for the restoration of democracy and yet retain its dominance in national politics by circumventing the existing political process and using the time at its disposal to gradually create a hierarchy of 'guided democratic' institutions. From the local bodies upwards, this could serve to marginalise or divide current political formations. Local bodies without party delegates are perhaps seen as a good launching pad if they can be turned into breeding grounds for a new stratum of civilian political clients who could cement a base for whatever domesticated dispensation is visualised for the higher levels. The fact that no timetable has been announced for elections at higher levels suggests that the future course will be dictated by what happens in the remaining phases of the local-body elections, to be completed by the end of June 2001.

All the three major party leaders, Benazir Bhutto of the Pakistan Peoples Party, Nawaz Sharif of the Pakistan Muslim League and Altaf Hussain of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, are currently in exile. For this reason, the military could find it easy to push for a parallel political process. There is as yet no indication of when political parties will be allowed to participate in the electoral process. Most importantly, the government claims that its objective is the devolution of power to district and town committees to the extent that even the district police and civil administration will be answerable to them.

If the devolution plan is genuine, the new system will effectively abolish the system of controlling the districts through the powerful deputy commissioner. However, the government's equivocation betrays its insincerity. While the chairman of the National Reconstruction Bureau speaks of local bodies with enormous powers, Musharraf himself says that the councils will only have limited regulatory and financial autonomy and their power will be restricted to formulating development plans free from interference by political parties.

It seems unlikely that the military will make too radical a concession to elected bodies and the intention may well be a limited devolution scheme with the purpose of introducing a new set of agents in the mechanisms of power at the district level, currently monopolised by civil servants and locally dominant political figures.

But both the military and the political opposition are trapped in their respective dilemmas. Experiments in controlled democracy are fraught with the danger of spiralling out of control and the government has to steer a careful course. That the elections to the local bodies are spread over six months and three phases is an indication of Musharraf's caution. The situation is equally delicate for the political parties. Considerations of political survival compelled the constituents of the 18-party Alliance for Restoration of Democracy to sponsor candidates to local bodies despite condemning the election as a farce.

If this trend continues in the phases of elections to come, the military will have forced the constituents of a common political platform to be locked in fierce competition at the ground level in elections that they do not officially recognise, and in which they have no recognised status. The military regime for the moment seems to hold the advantage, but how long this will continue depends as much on its own conduct as on the acumen or lack of it of the political opposition.

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Himal Southasian