A Personal Account of the Local Bodies Polls
By Dr Shireen M Mazari


Thirteen years after my father's death, I witnessed another member of my family contest an election but there were many differences this time round. First, it was a female member of the family (my younger sister) which was a major social upheaval for the area; and, second, this was not a parliamentary but a Union Council election. That is why it was a far more intensely personal experience.
The decision taken by my sister initially had some family members up in arms because it was unheard of that a woman from the family should contest the Union Council Nazim election. Then a compromise was suggested with the opposition to ensure a "dignified" no-contest result. But the whole idea was to break the feudal mode and work at the grassroots level to ensure development of the area so the compromise was out. There were whispered comments about how the Balochis would never vote for a woman. In the end our assessment proved more correct -- that people simply want someone who understands their problems and will work to better the area. Since my sister, along with my mother, is not an absentee feudal but lives in the area and undertakes her own agricultural work, she had an advantage and her gender did not prove to be a disadvantage.
As for all the statements coming in the media and from the politicians about support for local candidates from different groups and parties, we certainly did not experience this. In fact, my sister's decision to contest was a reaction to thirteen years of neglect by those our village supported with thousands of votes to various seats -- from the Union Council to the National and Provincial elections. All the Mazaris and Dreeshaks never bothered to look across the river from Rajanpur city to help, in any way, the small enclave of Union Council 40, Bangla Ichha, Rajanpur, on the East Bank of the River Indus.
Of course, the fact that to communicate directly with Rajanpur city from Bangla Ichha requires a journey through Sindh into Kashmore and then across the dangerous Mazari-Bugti firing line, is a major deterrent which keeps local officials away from our area. Even at the time of floods, hardly any official from Rajanpur bothers to traverse across to this outpost of the district.
This physical divide also played a role in the period leading up to the elections when the DCO was hardly available on the telephone -- especially in the last two days before the polling -- to deal with the tactical problems relating to the polling. One major issue was the location of polling stations because the authorities were following the last LB list and some of these locations were not in a state to act as polling stations anymore. For instance, one had been inundated with floodwater while another had a roof missing. But it was impossible to tell the Additional Sessions Judge sitting in Rajanpur city that. As he put it: "I have now given my orders and cannot change them!" Of course, if he had visited the area he would have realized the situation on the ground. The net result was that we began polling day with confusion over the location of one polling station -- luckily the water had gone down somewhat in the other location.
But this was merely the start of our troubles. After going through the whole process, it was clear to me that we won the elections in spite of the Election Commission, not because of its arrangements. To begin with, the voters' lists were from the 2001 LB polls. Since then, the lists had been updated for the 2002 general elections but these lists were not used. When I asked the Additional Secretary of the Election Commission in charge of the complaint cell why the more updated lists were not being used, he informed me with this response: "Because the local body elections are different from the general elections!" Of course he assumed I was a total idiot not to know this difference. But, I informed him, the voters were the same for our area. His answer was simply that this was the rule and in any case the 2001 lists had been updated. This was a load of nonsense because there had been absolutely no updating of these lists, which were in a chaotic state. The result was that, at least 300 of our supporters and potential voters with valid NID cards were disenfranchised.
At one point one thought that this would actually tilt the balance, but luckily for us, the average voter in the village was equally fed up of the underdevelopment inflicted upon them by the elected representatives of the past. But the Election Commission officers, sitting in the ivory towers of Islamabad, were of no help at all. The complaint cell may as well not have existed. In fact, the officer there did tell us that he only took complaints but there was another section that was actually dealing with the elections. So one was handed one phone number after another and as calling from our village is not very easy, one gave up in disgust after a while.
Nor was it just the outdated and incomplete voters' lists that were the problem. There was also the issue of the ID cards. Having realized much earlier on that many people did not have ID cards, my mother and sister contacted NADRA and were impressed to see the relevant personnel arrive and complete the procedures for the new ID cards. But then they suddenly disappeared despite being told about the need to provide these cards before Election Day. So the result was that NADRA failed to deliver the cards in time.
With all these bureaucratic issues, it was a pleasant surprise to find a most pleasant and sensible polling staff. Courteous and willing to listen, they stuck to the rules despite bullying by opposition toughies. That in itself was no mean achievement. The presence of the army in the background was also a major reason no untoward action took place by the rather rough opposition.
At the end of it all, the most outstanding feature of the elections was the commitment of the voters who withstood hours of heat and dust, and walked many miles -- since the police had confiscated all modes of public transport barring tractor trolleys -- to cast their vote. They were undeterred by the complicated and rather absurd voting system which comprised five separate ballot papers with numerous symbols. Surely the system needs to be simplified and made more rational? Apart from anything else, the actual procedure took rather long and caused confusion because the ballot papers had to be ripped from five different booklets which required each voter to put his/her thumbprint on all five before being allowed to cast vote.
That is why the most remarkable feature of these elections was the enthusiasm and political commitment of the voters. As long as they continue to remain politically savvy -- and they certainly were -- the future of democracy in this country is assured despite the odds.
(The writer is director general of the Institute of Strategic Studies in Islamabad. Courtesy The News)


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