Monday, November 2, 2015

Daily Times Editorial Nov 2, 2015

Electoral landscape The exercise of holding local bodies elections in 12 districts of Punjab and eight districts in Sindh in the first phase passed off by and large peacefully, although notable instances of violent clashes between rival party workers were reported from some areas. The worst incident occurred in Khairpur where 12 people were killed in an exchange of firing between rival party workers of the PPP and PML-F. Physical clashes were also reported from various areas but nothing on the scale of Khairpur. The results as available so far did not run contrary to expectations. The PML-N carried the day in Punjab while the PPP triumphed in Sindh. The advantages of incumbency, as the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) pointed out in its preliminary analysis, were clearly on display. A surprising development was the emergence of so many independent victors, who taken as a whole counted as the second largest (albeit disparate) group. Two factors may help to explain this phenomenon. First, aspiring candidates who failed to garner their parties' tickets ran as independents and reaped the benefit of their local stronghold constituencies. Second, it could also indicate a level of dissatisfaction with the mainstream incumbent parties. Whether some or most of these independents later negotiate their way into the corridors of power, a phenomenon of long standing in our political culture, the trend should give pause for thought to all the mainstream parties. The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) has much to learn from the instances highlighted in these local elections in terms of overcoming the lapses and mismanagement reported. Security remains an area of concern and should be focused on for the remaining two phases of the elections. The ubiquitous VIP culture was on display, at least when Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif voted in Lahore and PPP Chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari in Larkana (a first for the latter). Polling stations were emptied of voters before they arrived. Ostensibly this was for security reasons and offers a contrast with the way leaders in democratic societies appear to exercise their right to vote. The Ahmedi community, in line with its announcement before the polls, boycotted the election on the basis that its concerns regarding status, voting rights and representation went unaddressed. Other minorities and women, both subject to restrictions and problems in past electoral exercises, appeared able to participate unhindered. Physically challenged voters were not facilitated, an oversight the ECP would be advised to correct in future. The exorbitant spending in these elections, in conformity with what has become over the years a fact in all elections, was blatantly and unabashedly visible without causing even a crease on the ECP's brow. Effectively, the electoral road is closed to all but the moneybags in our society. Apart from the emergence of the large number of independent winners, the expected fireworks between the PML-N and the PTI in Punjab ended as a damp squib. The failure of the latter to dent the former in its home base has claimed its first casualty in the shape of the reported resignation of the PTI's Lahore organiser, Shafqat Mahmood. Ex-Governor Chaudhry Sarwar too must take the blame for his failure to produce a satisfactory outcome as the Punjab chief of the party. In Sindh the result was expected since the eight districts going to the polls were all rural areas, the stronghold of the PPP in that province. Although there is much room for improvement in the arrangements for holding the next two phases of the local elections, there is no denying a sense of satisfaction at the beginning of the process of electing the lowest tier of the democratic structure after all the delays and foot dragging, perceived as provincial governments' reluctance to devolve power to the grassroots. It took years of agitating the issue, the 18th Amendment and the efforts of the Supreme Court before even this stage could be reached. Hopefully, the future holds the routine and timely holding of local elections rather than the decade that has been lost since the last such exercise. The ordinary citizen is most interested in the creation and sustainability of local bodies since they promise delivery at the doorstep. Pakistan's halting journey towards a fully functional and consolidated democratic system continues, a source of satisfaction for all democratically minded forces, and a promise of a more stable and mature polity to come.

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