Balochistan is set to hold local government elections by the end of May. However, the process leading to elections has been marred by several controversies raising concerns that these might result in another political crisis in the province.
A few months back, the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) announced that it will hold the local government elections in Balochistan on May 29. According to the ECP, there are 4,011,096 registered voters in 32 districts of Balochistan. Polls in Quetta and Lasbela districts will be held later after delimitation issues in these districts are sorted out.
While on one hand, the process of holding local government elections is in full swing, on the other, the ECP website has remained non-functional for many days (till the filing of this report). This has resulted in a lack of transparency and made it hard for journalists to secure authentic information about local government elections in Balochistan.
On April 16, Chief Minister Bizenjo said that local government elections will be held on time in the province. Ten days later, the stance of the ruling coalition appeared to have changed and some of the coalition leaders were seen opposing the holding of elections as scheduled. On April 26, a majority of the provincial assembly members asked for a postponement of local government elections.
Sana Baloch, representing Kharan in Balochistan Assembly, said on the floor of the house that polls cannot be conducted in a fair manner due to massive flaws in the voter lists. Other assembly members also raised concerns along the same lines and opposed the holding of elections on May 29. Subsequently, the speaker of the Assembly gave a ruling against the local government elections, saying that the provincial government had not been consulted by the ECP before the announcement of the date of the polls and that there were several flaws in the system which made fair elections impossible. The speaker ruled that the local government elections should be postponed indefinitely.
Saadullah Baloch, the provincial social media secretary of the National Party, is contesting the local government elections from Quetta. He told Balochistan Voices that delimitation of the constituencies was carried out in haste, resulting in several problems. “23 new wards have been added unfairly in Quetta. This can tilt the elections in favor of the parties in the government,” he says. He also alleges that voter lists were not properly displayed, preventing political parties from checking whether their voters have been entered into the correct constituencies. He alleged that the government parties have carried out gerrymandering on a huge scale throughout the province to ensure the victory of their candidates in the elections.
Apart from technical problems related to the elections, another major concern is the Local Government Act of Balochistan. The law does not empower the local governments in any meaningful way. The elected local government will not have any administrative or financial authority over the government machinery in their jurisdictions. There is also no provincial finance commission, required by Article 140 of the constitution to ensure fair distribution of resources among local governments by the provincial government. In the absence of a law that empowers the elected officials, even if the elections are held fairly, this will not make any difference in terms of better governance and service delivery in the province.
Balochistan has not had a meaningful local government system since 2008. Elections were held in 2013 under pressure from the Supreme Court, but the resulting local governments were powerless. Since 2018, the province has operated without an elected local government system. Provincial bureaucrats have been running the show. A major reason for this problem is that members of the Balochistan Assembly, who hold the power by default, do not want to transfer it to local governments. Hence, they always find reasons to block the formation of an empowered local government system by not passing an adequate law or by delaying the elections when possible.
In this context, Balochistan can only have a meaningful local government system if certain actions are taken. First, the elections that are to be held on May 29 should be postponed for six months. In the meantime, two things are needed. The Provincial Assembly should debate on and pass an empowered local government law. The ECP should revisit the delimitation exercise and ensure that there is no gerrymandering. Once these two steps are taken the government of Balochistan and the ECP can agree on a date for the polls, ideally sometime in November. Once a date is decided, the ECP must display the voter lists and address all complaints of incorrect registration of voters. All of these steps are necessary for the local government system in Balochistan to be credible and effective.
Left to their own devices, the provincial lawmakers may not pass a law any time soon to create empowered local governments. Pressure will have to be built in this regard by the public and civil society to goad them into action. It is heartening to recall that in the recent past civil society has successfully pressured the assembly into passing the Right to Information legislation. The ECP also needs to understand the gravity of the situation and in view of the controversies not insist on adhering to the May 29 schedule.
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