Census and elections | By Zaheer Bhatti


Census and elections

POPULATION census, general elections, and Local Bodies polls are three major planks for a truly democratic order in a civilized society which cost cash-starved countries like Pakistan very dearly besides requiring elaborate logistic support and, therefore, demand extreme care and caution so as not to require re-polling or head count afresh which costs money and precious time diverted from matters of governance.

Unfortunately, all three essentials have for ever been controversial in Pakistan which reflects very poorly upon our capacity and will as a nation to perform effectively.

Census, being a pre-requisite for preparing eligible voter list for holding elections, ought to be ideally held prior to each general election, but the exercise particularly since separation of the eastern wing of the country has always been controversial.

Starting 1951 when the first national census was conducted, altogether six registration exercises as against 13 general elections have been held, whereas principally, census ought to have been carried out every five years.

The exercise has been undertaken in 1951,1961, 1972, 1981, 1998 and 2017 at irregular intervals; the last one conducted under the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics.

In view of the fact that the last census was carried out after a huge gap of 19 years due to political considerations, it ought to have been authentic and thorough, but was unfortunately rejected by various segments of the political divide pointing out several flaws including fake registrations and legitimate voters missing besides tampering with delimitation of urban and rural constituencies; vociferous among them being the MQM in Sindh.

With the present government announcing a fresh head count, Pakistan is in for another expensive exercise with no guarantees that it would be transparent and efficient.

It is the job of the powers that be to be cognizant of the shortcomings of the exercise to ensure that it is acceptable to all, and paves the way for undisputed Parliamentary and Local Bodies elections.

While no loser has accepted defeat in good grace in the country’s general elections where the Election Commission invariably has faced the flak, tampering with census results and demarcation of constituencies has been resorted to by virtually all sitting governments.

Manipulated elections in Pakistan’s checkered history have been one of the main reasons for failure of democracy in the country, but most unfortunate is the fact that Parliamentarians while demanding fair elections for public consumption, appear to be comfortable with status quo in the current rules of the game, and least interested in removing bottlenecks to reform the system; as evidenced by the controversy generated in public over the proposed use of the Electronic Voting Machine, reservations of the Election Commission and bulldozing of the EVM Bill within Parliament without a debate.

The Election Commission’s willingness to test the machine prior to general polls in the Local Bodies exercise has done well and asked the Government to provide the sample instrument which reportedly will be experimented with, during the forthcoming LB polls in Punjab.

Local Bodies which are supposed to be the backbone of the country rendering services at the grass roots have never been allowed to function.

There have been either no elections for Local Bodies in different provinces on one pretext or another, or whenever and wherever held, the system has never been allowed to function; withholding Local Government funds meant for uplift of their constituencies and incapacitating LBs incumbents supposed to be running Local Government to facilitate the Provincial and Federal Government in addressing vital local Issues.

Local Bodies Funds are either illegally diverted to MNAs and MPAs whose main function is Legislation, towards which their contribution is next to nothing except getting at each other’s throat in and outside Parliament, or if unable to get the LB designated Funds, resigning their non-lucrative positions as Parliamentarians and preferring to become Councillors; only eying to acquire and pilfer the earmarked Funds; which is a mockery of the entire system.

This scribe has severally pointed to the dire need of a functional Local Bodies System, which is not only a guaranty to reach amenities down the ladder to the common man but also serves as a nursery for raising future Parliamentarians on the basis of their performance at lower levels.

But such is the metal of our great Parliamentarians that towards the fag end of their own current term, both the Government and the Opposition have woken up to the need for Local Bodies; not so much for reaching amenities to the grass roots, but to use them in their campaigns for the not too distant next general election.

The real essence of Local Bodies System prevalent in the sub-continent prior to the British Rule was genuine decentralization of Administrative and Financial Authority and the local units effectively carrying out development and providing justice at grass roots through Bodies of reputed elders in the vicinity known as ‘Panchayats’, delivering speedy justice which was enforced without loss of time.

But with arrival of the British, a corruptive Local System empowered a compliant class of mini-feudals to serve the Colonial Rule; replicated by military regimes after Independence; raising their own tiers of loyalty at the grass roots rather than for the service of people, and staying put with the Colonial System of Justice which was inherently flawed in delaying and, therefore, denying justice, while oscillating between Independence and subservience.

The polarization which the just concluded first phase of already delayed LB polls obviated in the KP marred by violence, strengthens my view that Local Bodies should be apolitical and be held on non-party basis with strict focus on development and price control besides serving as mini-Ombudsmen at local levels.

But as of now, the results in the Party-based polls reflect lack of deliverance by the sitting Government, which sadly is still under the illusion that its defeat was due to wrong selection of candidates; a shortcoming which has been typical of the Party right from the start.

With lack of Party discipline, supporting family members in the Opposition and preference to weather-birds with no loyalties, PTI is just not equipped to match wits with those mastering the art of political manoeuvring, which is name of the game in Pakistan.

—The writer is a media professional, member of Pioneering team of PTV and a veteran ex Director Programmes.


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