The test that was not used

Are there any precursors of the coming election?

At Penpoint

One of the most encouraging things about the recent Cantonment Board elections is the almost entire absence of allegations of malfeasance, especially official inference sufficient to vitiate the results. However, that makes for a problem in itself. It means that the announced resolve of the government to have the next elections conducted while using electronic voting machines is rendered a little dubious. After all, the EVMs were to be introduced to stop such complaints.If there are no such complaints,why bother change the system? To quote a popular saying, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

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However, that apparent willingness to accept results might not extend to a general election. The current elections were not even a full straw poll, being a part of one. They were by no means a national election, though they took place all over the country, and were not full-fledged local government polls, being to cantonment. Unlike most local councils, these are not fully elected, having certain ex officio members. The law governing the boards, including their elections, is in purely federal hands, even though local government is a federal subject.

Though cantonment by their name would seem to mainly be populated by the military, and thus a primarily transient population, cantonments often include entire villages predating the granting of the land to the cantonment, as well as large civilian populations. The civilian influx is because the military has for long granted plots of land to its personnel, which they have sold onward to civilians. Therefore, they are not particularly different from other constituencies.

However, the utility of local elections to gauge the public mood is rather dicey. There is always a disadvantage to the sitting government, which suffers from an anti-incumbency factor. Even in a party-based system, the ruling prty may lose control of  a council at most, while in a national election, the national or provincial government is at stake. The premium on a local government vote is lower, as the stakes are not so high.

The cantonment board elections do not show a path to local body elections. How the PTI intends to overcome the pressure to hold them it faces from the Supreme Court is not known at the moment, but that it will resist even more strongly, is likely to be made more probable by the cantonment board election.

Because the cantonment boards include rural areas, they are more representative of the nation as a whole than of the military, but they are still not a good measure of national opinion. They are not skewed by the concerns or opinions of the military, but are more representative of civilians than one would think.

At the same time, it should not be forgotten that local bodies are not really a good indicator of public opinion or voter intention. This is not just so in Pakistan, but in the more experienced democracies. There is also the experience of the PML(N), which has used the local councils not so much as a recruiting tool, as a campaigning tool for candidates. It is still a path to a party ticket, to take all of the councillors supporting an individual to the parliamentary board. This doubling of the local council as grassroots organisation for the party has made the PML(N) able to dispense with the need for party organisation.

One result is that it has avoided to some extent the clash between councillors and members visible in both the PPP and the PTI. Both are elected representatives, after all. However, it should be remembered that one reason why members (of national or provincial assemblies) clash with councillors is that often enough the difference is not so much ideological as local. The local body poll rivalry is often enough more atavistic than party affiliation the cantonment board polls cannot be, and may date back to a personality clash some generations back. That might explain why it illustrates why it is so easy to change party affiliation: the rivalry is more important than any superficial affiliation.

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These rivalries are taken very seriously, with the result that local body polls are often enough more violent than even national elections, where the violent deaths of candidates have led to polls being countermanded. Luckily no one was killed, but there have been some clashes during the cantonment board polls that illustrate this.

Another important factor in local body polls is the incumbency advantage. Local councillors are near the bottom of the political food chain. They may be little more than glorified police touts. The ruling party’s candidates not only have the backing of the local administration, (and while the ECP might detect and frown upon ballot stuffing, what it is supposed to do about a remark by the SHO to a local ward healer?) also the aura of being better able to do things if elected. In short, getting development funds.

Boh the PPP and the PTI have thus avoided local body polls. It is a little ironic that the PTI has loudly proclaimed the virtues of local councils as the nurseries of democracy, where parties find candidates for higher office. It has held local body polls in KP, but it does not seem inclined to repeat the experience. However, it seems that it is facing the most resistance in Punjab, where its attempt to dissolve the existing local bodies failed, but where it refused to restore the local bodies until their term expired.

Therefore, the cantonment board polls represent a missed opportunity, as they should have been used as a preparation for local body polls. That they were not used to test the EVMs may not be a missed opportunity, so much as the EVMs not being ready for testing.

The only party which showed some signs of using these elections as a rehearsal for future polls, whether local body or general elections, was the PML (N). That was perhaps only to be expected, as that is how the party has generally operated. However, that is perhaps the reason why it cannot take the successes it has had in the polls all that seriously. There seems to be resentment against the PTI, only to be expected because of the skyrocketing cost of living, but it has not translated into an overwhelming movement against the government which can be withstood by nothing.

Though the PPP have never been much for local body polls, its being wiped out in the Punjab in the cantonment board polls cannot be good news for it. However, it has had previous experience of being thrashed in local body elections, and then coming back to win national polls. It indicates that it more or less ignored the polls, and participated only because they were held on party basis, and because there were ticket applicants.

The PTI itself might have noticed that it did not do well in Punjab, but did well in KP. KP has been a traditional stronghold, and it seems that it will continue to be a force there. However, that it will need independents to form majorities shows that it has not established the kind of hold it needs for long-term survival.

The cantonment board elections do not show a path to local body elections. How the PTI intends to overcome the pressure to hold them it faces from the Supreme Court is not known at the moment, but that it will resist even more strongly, is likely to be made more probable by the cantonment board election.

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