Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif arrives at a polling station to cast his vote during the local body elections | Tariq Mahmood, White Star
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif arrives at a polling station to cast his vote during the local body elections | Tariq Mahmood, White Star

When Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif cast his ballot on October 31, 2015, in his home constituency in Lahore, he could rightly claim to have secured a big first for his government. These were the first-ever local government elections in Pakistan’s history held under local government laws passed by elected legislatures. But, ironically, despite all their historic significance, they offered little to rejoice and celebrate in terms of devolution of power.

So this is not a ‘first’. Almost all elected federal and provincial governments have been wary of local governments. They have never seen local governments as their grassroots extensions and instead have identified them as competitors, even rivals, for political clout. There is history behind this: three out of four military dictators in the country – Ayub Khan, Ziaul Haq and Pervez Musharraf – designed and instituted local government systems to not only centralise power in their own hands but also to use these as nurseries for developing politicians who would eventually challenge the established political stalwarts.

In doing so, the generals were following in the footsteps of our colonial masters who had used local government to counter the nationalist independence movements. The colonial model ensured that legislative bodies of any sort were stuffed with more nominated members than elected ones and that these legislative bodies remained subservient to the bureaucracy loyal to the colonial administration.

The recent local government elections were held under five different laws enacted by the four provincial assemblies and the federal government (the last one being applicable only for Islamabad). These laws differed on minor details, but they were the same concerning major issues. Each ensured a large number of reserved seats — another name for nominations since indirect elections to these seats manifest the choice of the few rather than the will of the many. Each law gives the local governments very little power. Even the powers given to them by one hand have been taken away by the other. And the powers that are taken away have been given to the bureaucracy working under the tight control of the provincial governments.

The ruling parties in the provinces have, thus, managed to defeat the very idea of devolution as well as their political rivals. The election results have perpetuated party status quos in both Punjab and Sindh. Even in Karachi, which has undergone a number of politically ‘destabilising’ actions by law enforcement agencies since 2013, elections for the local government could not undo, or even alter, the city’s political landscape.

But it will be a folly to see this status quo as everlasting. The local government elections did expose a gaping hole in our politics — the absence of a viable opposition party. Independents have come out as runners-up everywhere. In some districts, they have actually managed to win as many seats as the provincial ruling parties.

This new (first-ever) trend signifies two important things. One, it demonstrates the marked incapacity of political parties to accommodate new political leaders emerging at the local level. Their refusal to use these elections to set up and strengthen their grassroots structure has boomeranged on them in the shape of victories by the independents. Two, the massive horde of independent winners will constantly loom large on our political horizon. Can they be tamed by the ruling parties or will their collective aspirations take the shape of a new king’s party?

Their existence is sign enough that the formation of a political party capable of opposing the ruling ones may just be one announcement away. The independents obviously are not committed to any organisation. This makes them political raw material, one that the generals have always loved to mould into parties they could install as their own.

The ruling parties in the provinces, therefore, may have won the local government elections but they have not entirely defeated the opponents who have become rather elusive to beat. Similarly, the ruling parties may have thwarted a genuine devolution of power but the power politics ushered by the local governments has produced legitimate claimants to power in every village and every neighbourhood.

Sharif’s motorcade has quite literally reached the narrow alley of local government. He will now have to negotiate the difficult political twists and turns in each village and neighbourhood. And he must bear in mind that there is no signal-free corridor, overhead bridge or underpass available that can land his party directly to a victory in the 2018 general election.

This article was originally published in Herald's Annual 2016 issue. Through a selection of photographs, the Herald took a look at some of the events and developments that were extremely significant in 2015. To read more, subscribe to Herald in print.