Amid all the confusion that has surrounded the government, in which finding a new Governor for the Punjab was subordinated to the feat of survival, amid a fresh outbreak of target killing, there was little energy to be spared for the coming local body elections. At the same time, the end of the term of those bodies has not just created a need for elections, but has also created circumstances where the provincial governments have appointed officials as administrators, and thus made it important for the parties really interested in local bodies to manoeuvre for future position. The idea of local government as a tier of government, at least as an elected tier, has come to Pakistan from the British, who thought it an essential stage in developing democratic institutions. Therefore, the 1872 councils came into existence, with provincial councils not coming before the beginning of the 20th century. Beneath the grand narrative of the struggle between the Raj and the Congress, with the All-India Muslim League involved as well, are the myriad stories of district-level politicking. These have been linked to the provincial, and then national, legislatures by members making the jump from local politics to provincial or legislative. Local strongmen realised that their control of their seat depended on their control of the seat 'below, which was occupied by a son, brother or other close ally. That seat was parlayed into both a national or a provincial seat, as well as the Chairmanship or Vice Chairmanship of the concerned local council. Present Kashmir Affairs Minister Manzoor Wattoo, formerly Punjab Chief Minister and Punjab Assembly Speaker, was a former Chairman of Okara District Council and MQM group leader Dr Farooq Sattar was the MQMs first Mayor of Karachi when that party began its rise. These are only two examples of former local councillors, who have gone on to make a name for themselves in national politics. This is the phenomenon which led the countrys first military ruler to lay such a great emphasis on local bodies. Indeed, he made them the basis of his rule, with the referendum validating him not conducted among the ordinary voters, but among the local councillors, now christened Basic Democrats. Basic Democracy was the hallmark of the Ayub regime, with them electing the (then) five provincial assemblies, as well as the national, and then the President himself, an election to which Ayub submitted in 1965. Yahya Khan did not revive the local councils in the next martial law, though the national elections he held did split the country. Military rulers seem to rely on local body polls to produce supporters. Mustafa Khar relates how Ayub Khan got his father to introduce him into politics. Indeed, the PPP was full of figures from the Ayub Khan era, with Zulfikar Ali Bhutto himself having been his Foreign Minister. Bhutto himself, when he took over Pakistan, or rather West Pakistan, in 1971, did not rely on elected local councils. One reason was he relied on the bureaucracy, which also served as administrators for the local councils. In the three-way alternation between martial law regimes, the PML-N and the PPP, perhaps the main difference has been the reliance of the first two upon local councils, and the reluctance of the last to allow them. The PML-N found the local councils useful in two ways: First, as a source of funds for party activities, and second as a recruiting ground. Local bodies have always been partyless, and thus those elected have been inclined to join the ruling party because of its command of resources that the newly elected want to access. Once they have joined the government, they would want to join its party, and once there, might find themselves committed to it in ways that oblige them to oppose the government of the day. However, the phenomenon that most governments concern themselves with is that the councillors want their support. When, as with military regimes, local bodies find that there are no provincial or national legislatures, they get the sense of being the sole representatives. This lasted a long time under Ziaul Haq, who relied on local councils laking ambitions from 1979 to 1985, when he finally held national and provincial elections. Because provincial and national legislators at the very least (and often have been) local councillors in these assembly-less periods, the inevitable antagonism between local councillors and legislators is exacerbated into what amounts to conflict. The heads of government, now elected, perceive the conflicts as damaging to their tiers control on power. One instinct, as shown by the PPP, is not to have elections, and to have the administratorships handed over to bureaucrats as an additional charge. Military regimes set great store by the local bodies, because the partyless basis of their election makes them free of party influence. Because of councillors willingness to support whoever holds the higher tiers of government, they also provide the basis of both the support and the legitimacy military regimes crave so desperately. Military rulers also like to portray themselves as promoters of democracy, which they claim previous governments were not, even though elected. Whether the new democracy is 'Basic, Islamic or True (a cop-out used by the Musharraf military regime), the local bodies provide a place where the new concept can gain strength. The role of local bodies was first thought useful because of the British example, but with military regimes, the American example (itself derived from the British) became more important. This saw the last military regime combine the re-introduction of local bodies with a weakening of the civil service, or rather of the district management system. Actually, the system was not really changed, but a number of services to the public, which provided interfaces between the government and the people, were handed over to the local governments, whose heads also received many of the powers of the old DCs. Also, making sure there was no crossover was also unpopular, but was enforced. This all went to empower the MQM. The new district system, with elected heads rather than bureaucratic, might empower the MQM, but it clearly works against the interests of national and provincial legislators, who are inclined to see it as an encroachment on the areas where they have been operating. One of the objections to the Zia regime was that the 1985 elections were also partyless, and the legislators were merely councillors with larger constituencies, devoted to solving the same sort of problems. Another unspoken understanding is that local body elections must occur on the same day in all provinces. This is a Raj-era hangover, carried over by military regimes. Actually, there is no reason why the elections cannot be held on different dates, as local government is supposed to be a purely provincial subject. The MQM has found that, without the crossover it seeks, it is unable to form even the government in Sindh. Therefore, it not only looks forward to elections, which will give it validation in its strongholds, but it will control those bodies it can. The MQM is thus in favour of strong local councils, because it means that thus the MQM will gain more strength. An important factor has been the MQMs ability to fight local elections as a party, not relying on local strongmen or 'winning horses at any level, and thus being able to impose its own man as Mayor or District Nazim or whatever. That these elections must be held if service delivery is, not merely to be improved, but made at all. The alternative, repatriating these services to the provincial governments, probably does not deserve contemplation, for there were a lot of services for which local governments were already responsible pre-Musharraf. However, instead of the same date, the provinces should be allowed, indeed encouraged, to set their own election dates. Though one way of strengthening the parties would be to make local body polls political, even military regimes have avoided this. Perhaps, the political governments might prefer not to. Email: maniazi@nation.com.pk