The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) has held the first phase of local council elections in 12 districts of Punjab and eight of Sindh, for the first time ever under a democratic dispensation, and for only the third time ever, but for the first time ever in phases. A potent symbol of what local council elections entail has to be the result in Faisalabad, where independents lead. The proportion of independents is much higher in the local councils, as party symbols have been introduced for the first time.

Local councils have been around since 1872. Thus the provincial assemblies, which produced governments, and which were first elected in 1937, came later. And the Central Assembly came into existence only after World War II, just in time to be partitioned. The then district boards kept on being elected, and the first such election in Punjab, in 1951, is also infamous as the ‘Jhurloo Election.’ Though in theory the provincial assemblies were supposed to have evolved from the local councils, actually there has been a tension between the two.

The military has had a touching belief in local councils, and it is worth noting that local elections have been held by three of the four military regimes of the country. Indeed, the first, made the local councilors the foundation on which rested the edifice of the Basic Democracy system, with the provincial and national assemblies, as well as the President, elected by the councillors, who were in turn elected by the voter.

In 1969, the voter was finally allowed to exercise his ballot for the assemblies, and one result was that the PPP found its MNAs and MPAs did not want local councils in place. This apparent contradiction remains. While military regimes want devolution of power to the local councils, elected governments want them to have as little as possible. Thus the step which the Zia Martial Law dared not take, the Musharraf Martial Law did: draw a line between the executive and the magistracy. Though elected governments have partially returned to the previous system, the separation still holds good. The DCO is no longer under the elected nazim, but is posted and transferred by the provincial government.

It is worth noting that local elections used to be partyless. Now, there are election symbols allocated by the parties, just as in general elections. The allocation of party tickets was first started by the Musharraf regime, after which the provincial governments did not hold local body polls. Under the post-Musharraf dispensation, local councils in place were allowed to expire at the end of their term, and taken over by the provincial governments.

Though intended by the Raj to be the schools of democracy for the ‘natives’, they became a forum where old rivalries could continue… That is why these elections are supposed to be so bloody. For the first time, there was a party-political element introduced. However, there remained a strong element of local rivalry. This is reflected in the difficulty the PML(N) had in allocating tickets in Punjab. Local rivalries had led to PML(N) candidates facing off against each other. Perhaps Faisalabad district is symbolic: the rivalry between Abid Sher Ali and Rana Sanaullah led to a large number of seats being left ‘open’, that is, where the party ticket was not awarded. However, this did not lead to either the PPP or PTI benefiting, as it should have, but a battle between Abid supporters on the ‘diamond’ symbol and the Sanaullah supporters on the ‘bucket’ symbol. In the end, the independents won. Independents will join the ruling party, but a lot of them won by defeating the party they will end up supporting. This was also a characteristic of the old partyless polls: that winners always supported the government.

The PML(N) has had an umbilical link with the local bodies . This goes back to the 1985 election, when a large number of councillors, taking advantage of the MRD boycott, entered the assemblies. It was perhaps no coincidence that the country’s largest assembly, that of Punjab, had as Speaker the Okara district council chairman, while National Assembly Speaker had been Multan district council chairman. The real power of local councilors over the PML(N) was seen when applicants for party provincial and national tickets took, along councillors to show their support. This did not happen with PPP ticket applicants.

Another advantage of controlling local councils was diverting their resources (both monetary and human) for political purposes. One result was that independents who won as councilors could then go on to build national or provincial political careers. The PML(N) thus practiced what the PTI has preached: using the local bodies as a nursery for democracy. However, the PTI has not got the chance of doing so, because it was beaten so comprehensively. The PPP has also got a bad experience of local bodies: in 1979, contesting as ‘Benazir candidates’(Benazir being both the name of the party leader then and meaning ‘unmatched’), the PPP actually won in Lahore only for those councilors to be disqualified.

The PTI rout has been so thorough that the Lahore organizer, who is also the first MNA from Lahore city not to belong to the PML(N) since the 1993 election, has resigned amid calls for other resignations, and some frenzied finger-pointing within the party. That might well imply that the PTI is going to get thoroughly beaten in the two other phases of the poll, on November 30 and December 5. It should not be too surprised, because it won as thoroughly in KP (where it has its government), as did the PPP in Sindh and the ruling National Party in Balochistan.

This parallels a trend apparent in India for some time, as the same-day election principle has long been abandoned. Indeed, the Indian general elections have long been held on a number of days, and there is also a state election in Bihar, being held in five phases between 12 October and 5 November. The ECP has another reason to watch that election: Bihar is experimenting with means of getting overseas voters to cast their ballots. When Balochistan and KP had local body elections in January and May 2015 respectively. The result was not sealed, as it was in Bihar, where indeed counting did not begin until all phases were complete. One result is that the various parties’ showings may well influence the other phases.

It must be stressed that the polls are only occurring because of the Supreme Court decision. When they are completed, they will stand as a monument to how the judiciary can fill the gap where the executive lacks the political will. The tussle between provincial and national legislators and local body members has not been resolved, and will not be so long as they are in competition for resources. Part of the problem is illustrated by PTI Punjab chief organizer Muhammad Sarwar’s political career in the UK, where he was first a councillor, then an MP. MNAs constantly see MPAs ready to replace them, and MPAs councillors. And all in pursuit of the same resources.