Conducting local body elections across Pakistan, under a new constitutional dispensation after the Eighteenth Constitutional Amendment, is turning out to be messier than any of the political parties had initially envisaged. And the prevailing commotion across Sindh, over the past some days, is just the latest episode of the protracted

In February of this year, the Provincial Assembly of Sindh, repealed the Sindh Peoples Local Government Act, 2012, and Sindh Local Government Ordinance, 2001, and revived the Sindh Local Government Ordinance, 1979. Thereafter, and under harrowing pressure from the honorable Supreme Court, the government of Sindh (along with all other Provincial Governments) had been working on enacting fresh Local Government laws that can enable effective fulfillment of the mandate of Article 140A of the Constitution, which require each province to “by law, establish a local government system and devolve political, administrative and financial responsibility and authority to the elected representatives of the local governments.”

In this regard, the People’s Party government of Sindh claims to have undertaken extensive consultations with all other parties in the Provincial Assembly, culminating (amidst much protest), in the Sindh Local Government Act, 2013, in August of this year. This new Act envisages, inter alia, local body elections to be conducted at the Union, Town, Municipal, District and Metropolitan level, along with a handing over of “political, administrative and financial responsibility” to the elected individuals.

In a province where political power and patronage is divided across cultural, ethnic, and linguistic boundaries, the most contentious issue between political parties (in regards to the local government laws) has been the manner and criteria set for delimitation of boundaries, within which respective constituencies of local government are divided. In this regard, section 10 the 2013 Act declares that “Union Council shall be an area comprising one or more revenue deh(s)” as notified “by Government”. The Act also envisages that “as far as possible”, the area of a Union Council shall have “territorial unity”, “uniform” population, and coherent revenue-circle/patwar boundaries. Similarly, per section 11 of the Act, a “ward” (another unit of local government), “shall, as far as possible, consist of a census block or adjoining census blocks”.

Pursuant to these provisions of the law, the process of delimitation of local government boundaries was still under way (and constantly being contested by opposition parties in Sindh) when the Acting Governor, Mr. Siraj Khan Durrani, promulgated the Sindh Local Government (Third Amendment) Ordinance, 2013. The promulgation of this Ordinance was met with almost unanimous opposition by all political parties in Sindh (except the PPP), and a judicial challenge to certain provisions of this Ordinance has also been made.

On the surface, this amendment seems to only make slight tweaks to the existing Act, but a deeper read and analysis of the Ordinance reveals its far-reaching and possibly nefarious consequences.

Specifically, the 2013 Act stipulates that the government of Sindh may, “after inviting objections from the residents of an area and hearing those from amongst them who wish to be heard”, declare certain areas to be “urban” or “rural” (which fact has a direct effect on the form and substance of local government in such area). The 2013 Ordinance has amended this provision to include that “where delimitation office” (the Deputy Commissioner) comes to a “conclusion” that an area has either become rural or urban, “he may declare” the same (apparently, in exercise of arbitrary authority and without giving any reasons, or hearing objections from any party).

The challenge to this provision, on the basis that it bestows unbridled authority on a Deputy Commissioner to influence the free and fair conduction of elections, is a strong challenge. Such power, in the hands of the bureaucracy, which frequently acts at the behest of the ruling government alone, does not seem reasonable or fair. Through the exercise of this power, the Deputy Commissioner can alter the complexion of local government in any given area, shifting its balance of power from one political party to another, without recourse to the electorate or the judicial dispensation.

Additionally, the 2013 Ordinance has also increased the discretion of the Government (through its bureaucracy) to constitute widely disparate Union Committees in Metropolitan Corporation. Earlier, the 2013 Act had envisaged that each such Union Committee shall consist of an area with the total population of 40,000 to 50,000 people, which (through the 2013 Ordinance) has now been expanded to a range of 10,000 to 50,000 people. As a result, through the exercise of this discretionary power, it is conceivable to have one Union Committee to be five times as large as another, thus resulting in unequal value of votes and inequitable distribution of resources.

Furthermore, the new Ordinance declares that elections to the local government are to be conducted by through a “panel” of candidates, no less than nine (9) in number. It also stipulates that, “in case a political party or independent candidates fail to form a panel for contesting election, the nomination papers of all other independent candidates or nominees of a political party shall be deemed to have been rejected.” There can be little cavil with the fact that this provision discriminates against the right of smaller political parties, or individual “azad” candidates, to effectively contest elections (in case they are unable to form a panel of 9 candidates). This is not only discriminatory towards such candidates (Article 25 of the Constitution) but also infringes upon their fundamental right to contest elections (Article 17 of the Constitution).

The form and substance of our local government, pursuant to Article 140A of the Constitution, sits at the very heart of our democratic dispensation. Ideal implementation of our democratic spirit would entail that members of the Provincial and National assemblies are restricted only to the responsibilities of legislation, whereas all administrative governance across Pakistan, is done by local government officials, in partnership with the civilian bureaucratic construct. Local government, as a result, is central to the provision of services and utilities to all citizenry in Pakistan.

In this spirit, the delimitation of local government constituencies, the application of its laws, and the implementation of its directives, is the most fundamental building block, around which our societal edifice can be constructed. The 2013 Ordinance by the PPP government of Sindh has damaged this idea, apparently in pursuit of partisan and political objectives. This is treacherous to the spirit of democracy in our land. And a betrayal of the confidence reposed by the hapless people of Sindh in their government.

The writer is a lawyer based in Lahore. He has a Masters in Constitutional Law from Harvard Law School.

Email:saad@post.harvard.edu

Tweets at:@Ch_SaadRasool