The holding of local body elections in Balochistan have dampened, but not eliminated, the expectations that surround the local body elections in other provinces, and Sindh in particular. The result has been another attempt by the provincial governments at postponement, with Sindh trying to go beyond the January 18 date, with a move into March. Punjab seems to be on track for polls on January 30. Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Islamabad have yet to have dates announced, though the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) has told the Supreme Court that it is ready to hold local elections in both by the end of February.

Apparently in a federal government comment on the polls, Interior Minister Ch Nisar Ali Khan has announced that he was placing NADRA, the National Database Registration Authority, under the ECP. He also indicated that PCSIR might also be placed under it, to ensure the availability of magnetic ink in sufficient quantities to ensure that fingerprints of voters can be verified.

One of the consequences of breaking up the polls, and holding them in a province at a time, instead of holding them on the same day nationwide, came out in the Balochistan polls which were held on December 8. That these polls did not have a predictive value in the past, seems to hold good even now, though the polls are now to be held on party basis, as opposed to the partyless basis of the past. One reason why the local body polls cannot be considered a barometer for the parties is the massive wins by independents in Balochistan in the elections there on December 7.

That is a trend that defeats the purpose of party-based elections, but is not necessary that it be repeated in the other provinces. One of the objections to partyless local bodies is that this encourages a culture of horsetrading, encouraging councilors to sell themselves to the highest bidder among the candidates for council chairmanships. Previously, whoever was elected, would try to join the government. This would mean a lot of horsetrading, and would lower the general political character expected of a legislator.

The provincial government is supposed to win such elections, and not be embarrassed by any loss. Whoever wins in partyless elections will support the government. Similarly, independents support the government. This is because, in the local bodies especially, the government controls access to funds, even if one has a majority in the local council, and even though the funding is tied to the local council. The key lies in the release of the funds. This is made worse by the power of the government to approve or disapprove schemes. There is not just the power of money used: local councilors’ support wins party tickets, especially if the councilors belong to the ruling party.

The Balochistan situation was made complex by the fact that a coalition is in office there, and the parties contested the elections separately. Though the results showed the National Party winning more seats than the PML-N, the latter is the larger party in the Balochistan Assembly, though it is the latter that has the chief ministership. Such a situation also prevails in KPK, where the PTI is in coalition with the Jamaat Islami. However, in the remaining two provinces, there is one party in office. Also, these are both parties which were re-elected this year, and the Chief Ministers, Mian Shehbaz Sharif of Punjab and Syed Qaim Ali Shah of Sindh, are both in their third tenures. In both, those candidates desirous of pleasing the government need have no worries about which party to choose.

The complication in Sindh is that the PPP, while reasonably certain of winning the district councils in areas where it had routed its rivals in the general election, cannot afford to let the MQM, now in the opposition, to win those municipalities it would normally win. Indeed, the MQM had emerged in 1987 as a result of local body elections, in which its candidates, mostly young and not well known, had won handsomely in urban areas, particularly Karachi and Hyderabad. As the MQM is still strong in these cities, as well as Sukkur, one reason the PPP would like to put off elections is to prevent it from gaining office in these cities. It probably would not have objected so strongly if the MQM had been in the government, but whereas it has always been the junior partner in previous ruling coalitions, it has stayed out of the government this time, and if, as seems Iikely, it wins control of Karachi and Hyderabad, it will count as the opposition winning control of the province’s two largest cities

The PML-N would like to win again in Punjab, but this is where the PTI will also want to win, to seal its position as the main opposition to the PML-N in the province. The PTI has concentrated all its strength so far on the electoral system. Its allegations of rigging in the general election continue, and it has made (an unfulfilled) commitment to hold local body polls in KPK, while that province was tardy in legislating for them.

One reason local body polls are valued abroad, is that they provide a pre-election test for all parties. They provide a very good opportunity for the so-called ‘protest vote’, when voters normally loyal to a party vote against it to protest something. They would not vote against it if the vote could cause the party to lose, but as local bodies are seen as good opportunities, parties also get a real-life test of their policies, if they are in office, or of their appeals to the voters if they are not. Local body polls do not provide that test. That is not just so because previous local body polls have been partyless, but because the issues are different. For example, the issues determining the outcome in the Sialkot Municipal Corporation may not be the same as those concerning the same voters in national elections. For example, the American drone attacks may have a bearing on how a voter casts his vote for MNA or even MPA, but will not play a major role, if any, in his vote for municipal councilor. The MQM has made this transition, making the vote of Muhajir aspirations the touchstone of voting in all elections, municipal, provincial or national. The PTI hopes that its voters will reproduce the same effect.

The PPP has long held a prejudice against local elections, never having held any, even though it has held office off and on since 1971. It must stop its contortions, and go ahead with the local body elections in Sindh, while remembering that how it holds them will affect the voters’ decision when next there is a national or provincial election.

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