The local council elections are being put off further than it was supposed likely, with the federal government getting into the act by ordering the holding of a census that will precede the delimitations of wards that the Lahore and Sind High Courts separately held were supposed to precede the holding of elections. Even before this cause for postponement arose, the Punjab and Sind governments were reluctant to hold local body polls, which were last held in 2006. That means that elected local councils gave up office, on the expiry of their tenures, in 2010, and since then, the provincial governments have had no competition while they deliver services, using the immense resources of the local governments. The putting off of the elections is made more awkward by the fact that they were conducted a month ago in Balochistan. Those councils have not met yet, and could well be plunged into limbo by the failure of the other provinces to hold elections.

At one level, there is a logic to the postponement. If the local governments are to be representative of the people, they would have to be properly constituted. That means proper delimitations, which implies that the ward which is to elect a member or a panel must be equal to its neighbours. That implies an updated census. The censuses are supposed to be decennial, but the last census, conducted in 1998, was itself in succession to the 1981 census, and thus seven years overdue. The next census should have been conducted in 2008, but was not, and thus a census this year would be six years overdue, but would also meant that one census has been allowed to disappear. It should be noted that there is no real reason for this, and previously, even the trauma of the secession of East Pakistan in 1971, a census year, was allowed to interrupt the census exercise, but only for a year, and a census of West Pakistan, now the entire country, was conducted in 1972.

It should be noted that the next census was duly carried out in 1981, not 1982, to ensure that the figures remained arithmetically compatible with the previous censuses, conducted in 1951 and 1961, part of the chain extending back to the first-ever census in 1872, in united India. The census was then held in 1881, and every 10 years thereafter. Indian censuses continue the chain, the last census taking place in 2011.

Census results are used in many ways, particularly in the allocation of anything, whether it be development funds or the number of seats. One reason for the avoidance of a census has been objections by the MQM, which would like to maximize the population in its areas of strength. However, while the census means that the number of National Assembly seats is reallocated among the provinces, the seat allocation among the districts is also determined by the census.

As both national and provincial constituencies are defined by local council units, their delimitation also has an effect on national and provincial seats even if the number for a district has been left unchanged. Another significant area where the census results are used, is the National Finance Commission Award, which is due next year in 2015. As its divisible pool (consisting of federal taxes) is shared out on the basis of population, it relies on the census for its results.

However, this should not disguise the fact that The Punjab and Sindh governments have won time to avoid these elections, and may extend the time to hold them to years, rather than months. This would allow them to pass most of their second tenures free of the local councils, which they had found in place on arriving in 2008. Both the Punjab and Sindh governments have in common being elected in 2008, and being re-elected in 2013. Of the new governments, the National Party-PML-N coalition in Balochistsn has held polls, though it has yet to transfer power, while in KPK, the PTI has yet to pass the necessary legislation, though it has pledged to hold local body polls, which it regards as essential to the democratic process.

It seems that the KPK government is going through the process which made the PML-N learn to drag its feet on local body polls. This is counter-intuitive, for the PML-N was very much the product of the 1979 and 1983 local body polls. It is no coincidence that the 1983 partyless elections saw local councillors come to the fore. Apart from the Prime Minister, Muhmmad Khan Junejo, who had started his career as chairman of the Sanghar District Board, the Punjab Speaker, Manzoor Wattoo, was Chairman of the Okara District Council. Then Punjab CM Mian Nawaz Sharif had not been a local councillor, but he embraced them. When his younger brother Shahbaz, now Punjab Chief Minister, entered politics, he did so as President of the Lahore City PML. Despite this, the PML-N has decidedly been unenthusiastic about local councils, or rather, having elected chairmen rather than appointed administrators, as at present.

This might reflect the PPP experience, in which founder Zulfikar Ali Bhutto did not hold a single local body election, though his initial political experience was gained in the Ayub regime, and he interacted with local body members in their role as Basic Democrats, while acting as election agent for Ayub in the 1964 presidential election. The PPP preferred to appoint administrators, either from among the bureaucracy, or among their own party workers. Bhutto brought his experience of local bodies to office in 1971, and that seems to have guided his party ever since.

History, as well as recent events, seem to show that un-elected institutions want local body polls, which elected governments do not. Of Pakistan’s four military rulers, only Yahya Khan did not hold local body polls. The present elections are being held on the directions of the Supreme Court, rather than the elected governments. Before Partition, it was the (unelected) British Raj which introduced local council elections. Military rulers have thought that local councils would provide an alternative to elected governments. Local councils are supposed to focus on the sort of development that MNAs and MPAs now dominate. The focus has shifted from the traditional functions of legislators, holding the government to account, and legislating, to development. Until that focus shifts again, provincial governments will continue to drag their feet on local body polls.

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