The Supreme Court has had not just to order the holding of local body polls, but to order the provincial governments to legislate to enable them. It did so in the course of hearing the Balochistan case, when it noted that local body polls had not been held in any province, with one result in Balochistan being that the law and order situation had broken down.

The court observed that not only was the local body system enshrined in the constitution, but it also served as the nursery of democracy. Because it enabled contact with the people at a deeper level of grassroots, it was better able to enable control of law and order. This provides an inkling of why the assemblies view them with such suspicion, and why the governments they generated are dragging their feet over legislating to bring new bodies into existence.

This puts the Supreme Court more in line with the practice of military regimes, rather than elected governments. Military governments, like the colonial government before them, need people who will both mediate and support, while leaving them in charge. Apart from the Supreme Court, Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaaf also sets great store by local councils, and promised to hold local body elections in KPK, the province it rules, even if the other provinces did not. However, the KPK government seems to be moving at the same speed as the other provinces.

One aspect that the political class seems unanimous in reversing was the previous military government’s transfer of the powers of the Deputy Commissioner, a career official posted by the Chief Minister, to the district nazim. It should be noted that this change was made by a military government, and also represented a break with the civil service, through which it had previously ruled. At one level, it would seem counter-intuitive for politicians to resent this, but there are two aspects that raise politicians’ hackles.

First, the nazim is elected, not appointed, and thus cannot be transferred. Second, he becomes the biggest obstacle to control by the government, because it can at most sack him. He thus would not allow the local MNA or MPA to work his will. Since the Chief Minister (or Prime Minister) depends on the MPA (or MNA) for survival in office, and the DC depends on him, the DC depends on the MNA or MPA, whoever is so designated. There were two other developments, one of which was the rural-urban divide that was abolished, with one nazim being elected for the whole district, as opposed to separate heads of rural district councils and urban municipalities. The other was the shifting of certain departments, such as schools and certain health institutions, to local council control, meaning that while those desirous of getting something done do not have to go to the provincial capital to meet the final authority, it also means that the provincial government would lose the control it had hitherto enjoyed. It would thus be inevitable for politicians to try and reverse this, if they got the chance. And now they do.

However, when the military last changed the system, then military ruler Pervez Musharraf said the change would depend on people supporting it. To that extent, he is right, and it is possible that the military has gone too far this time, just as when Ayub Khan’s ‘Basic Democracies’ were abandoned. That system of indirect elections was abandoned by the next military ruler, Yahya Khan, who did not conduct local body polls, but the 1970 elections, which led to the break-up of Pakistan.

Local body polls were leapfrogged by the Assemblies. It is possible to say that the Raj used them as a means of control, rather than a step towards empowering the people. This would explain why the military favoured local body elections so much. They provided a means of control, and were within the tradition they sprang from. This would also help explain the desire that the elections be partyless. The local body polls conducted by the military were partyless, and Ziaul Haq even made the 1985 elections partyless, allowing Prime Minister Mohammad Khan Junejo to form a political party only afterwards.

One effect was to focus the legislators onto local problems, and convert them into rivals of local councillors. The rivalry existed before, as shown by the PPP’s failure in the 1970s to hold local body polls. Local bodies in the 1980s and the 1990s played their due role as nurseries of legislatures. With Manzoor Wattoo, perhaps, the symbol of this relationship between legislatures and local bodies, as both Speaker of the Punjab Assembly and Chairman of the Okara District Council. He became Chief Minister, with his predecessor, Ghulam Haider Wyne, having been a Mian Channu Municipal Committee Chairman. Chaudhry Pervez Elahi was the third Chief Minister with experience as a Chairman, having chaired the Gujrat District Council. Mian Shahbaz Sharif breaks that pattern, though he served as Chairman of the PML Lahore Metropolitan Committee when elder brother Nawaz was Punjab Chief Minister. However, though neither Nawaz, nor Shahbaz was ever a local councillor, they found local councillors loomed large on the political horizon. If they or their close relatives did not apply for party tickets, they supported other applicants, who sometimes brought them to the parliamentary board meeting considering the applications. One result has been that legislators have been suspicious of councillors, while councillors have been envious of legislators.

Whatever the system put in place, it is unlikely to bring this rivalry under control. It shows the problem of democracy, and requires either a perfect understanding between the two tiers (such as have existed, voters permitting, when they are occupied by relatives). Whereas those who hold power have always been wary of potential successors, to the extent that monarchs have even killed heirs apparent, who have been equally quick to rebel. Therefore, legislators will not be comfortable with local councillors they do not control. The reliance of the UK on local bodies may well provide the model, but that also implies that the system has to be copied. Even then, it may not yield the predicted results, because those who design the system are interested in power, not democracy. However, in the present debate, the military is not involved, even though it has shown the greatest commitment to local bodies of any of the players in Pakistani politics. Indeed, the present set of legislation will be the first by an elected government after independence. At least for now, the military is excluded.

The writer is a veteran journalist  and founding member as well as executive editor of The Nation.