Though what had once been considered an important principle has been breached, that of holding local body elections at the same time throughout the country, the whole country has not as yet agreed to hold them. However, the Election Commission, which is now responsible, under the Constitution, for holding them, has been pleading for more time, almost as if its previous willingness was a sort of emergency, martial law, measure.

Once again, because of its pushing and prodding, the Supreme Court has emerged as the official body most interested in holding local body polls, something which it seems elected governments are reluctant to do. Ever since local body polls were introduced in the Subcontinent by the Raj, back in 1872, they were supposed to act as nurseries for higher assemblies. However, those higher assemblies did not arrive until the provincial councils of 1903, whose members were either nominated or elected on a narrow franchise. Indeed, the first election to be held in Pakistan on a universal adult franchise was that of 1971.

Local councils have been favoured by military rulers, who have apparently used them consistently. The only military ruler not to have held local elections, Yahya Khan, held general elections, which is something other military rulers also did. Thus military rulers prefer local body polls, but political governments seem to wish to avoid them. An important reason that emerged during the recent elections: funds. Local bodies have dedicated funds, which elected governments do not want others to spend.

One consequence has become visible now that the polls are to be held, for the first time ever, on party basis. The Raj, as well as military rulers, held partyless polls, estimating that partyless polls were likelier than not to produce councils which would support them, and where a chairman of the government’s choice could be imposed. The parties are being exposed as facing great difficulty in putting up slates, and it is only at the last minute, at the time of allocation of symbols, that parties will finalise their choices.

Only the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf supports the poll in theory, though its practical record has proved patchy. It has been behind the other provinces in legislating to allow for elections, with the result that the only province which has no election date is Khyber Pakhtoonkhwa, the only one where it forms the government. It has also not done particularly better than the other parties in awarding tickets in any province. It has thus shown itself as a party like other parties, without a grassroots organization capable of contesting local body polls.

It should be noted that the Raj may have seen the local councils as nurseries of democracy, but implicit was the belief that politics and democracy meant parties, and the Raj certainly did not want to encourage the parties. Both voters and candidates seem to have felt that local councils is where personalities start. Often enough, families still believe they are in politics when their standard bearers have lost both national and provincial seats, because they have retained ‘their’ district council seat.

It has been seen that a party which has been virtually produced by the local bodies, the PML-N faces reluctance in its leadership to hold local council elections. The PML-N has relied on local councils to fill its ranks, as councilors have either applied for party tickets, or have at least backed applicants.

The PTI was initially very enthusiastic about holding local body polls, but its experience of KPK government seems to have dampened that enthusiasm. The PPP, which has been in and out of office since 1970, has never conducted local body polls before, and thus might well see local councils as rival power centres. However, the PML-N- is in a way a product of the Zia local bodies, as the 1985 elections saw a huge number of local councillors going to the provincial and national assemblies. One of the potential areas of dispute has been the allocation of development funds to MNAs and MPAs by their respective governments. One of the objections to this has been the reduction of the role of national or provincial legislators to that of local councilors. This was apparently the role of the provincial and national legislators as seen by the Zia regime. However, this raises the question of funding. Elected governments, loth to let credit go elsewhere, do not like even present arrangements, and would not like to see money going to a local government, especially one belonging to a different party.

Another important difference between this and previous elections is that they are being run by the Election Commission of Pakistan, rather than separate provincial Local Election Authorities, as in the past. One of the implications has come forward in the recent case in the Supreme Court. The provincial governments may well have been empowered by the Eighteenth Amendment, but now they are dependent for these elections on a federal department. The department may be autonomous and under an independent head, but there will still be coordination problems.

Most noticeably, ECP readiness to hold the election is required. Also, the electorate wants a fair election, something which cannot be guaranteed without magnetized ink. There is also the question of the printing of a huge number of ballot papers. These tasks could be carried out in a short period of time, but only if secrecy was to be sacrificed. Sacrifice of secrecy means sacrificing the quality of the election, and thus defeating the purpose of the Supreme Court’s orders, which have been to bring peace to Balochistan, which it sees as only possible if the people are allowed to have their elected representatives. This, by the way, is also why the British introduced these councils, so that there would be some means of communicating with the representatives of the ‘natives’, especially after the Mutiny had shown that the earlier preferred means, the ‘native rulers’, were not reliable.

The Supreme Court is merely doing what it has been mandated to do: ensure that the Constitution is followed. As the Constitution not only provides for local government, but prescribes that the ECP shall hold its election, the Supreme Court is just ensuring that these elections are held. At the same time, it acknowledges that the democratic system cannot do without its nursery. The product, the assemblies, would like to cut the umbilical cord, or rather to keep it cut, and not have local elections. The political parties may also find that, at a lower tier, party feeling, never very strong, may not count at all. Their besetting fear may well be that the coming elections would leave them exposed.

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