What next?

By Rifaat Hamid Ghani

WHILE people are keenly focused on speculative discussion about no confidence motions or fresh elections to overthrow or return the incumbents in greater strength, the incumbents devise and push through an ordinance that facilitates and expands the legalized sphere of coercion and intimidation and suppression and detention to include – if its phrasing is understood and means what it says — not just hapless journalists and soiled rivals but any random suspect.

 PECAplus’ elastic potential makes it a handy little tool in the hands of anyone with an axe to grind who wants to pressurize or constrain for whatever personal reasons even nondescript apolitical citizen. For disproving a charge can take an unconscionable amount of time, while instituting investigating an allegation while the accused is in remand for up to six months is rather easy.  

And while the farsighted worry about the implications of the (to date) latest ordinance and optimists reassure themselves that parliament eventually has to come into play public attention is diverted from other ongoing political activity. Admittedly it seems more of the same for the incumbents have never shed electoral campaign mode, and their opponents have adopted it, but this time it is not merely mode it is practice: For elections to local bodies have also been juridically. Interestingly what one may dub the PECA ordinance (for the sound and fury is all about that) also has far-reaching electoral content, enhancing participation in campaigning. Local bodies elections (and let’s not forget others to come) will be approached with fewer official ECP fences.  

     Why have local bodies at all? Supposedly it is about the devolution of power; so as to provide administrative recourse and redress in terms locally comprehensive and practicable for common ordinary people, with peers functional at basic levels who are accountable to them electorally. It is instructive to look at this linkage in the perspective of past experience of instituting local bodies as an aid to democratization.

The mechanism has been used rather more often by military dictators than political figures assured of their parties’ civil relevance and standing. This is understandable: the military dictator lacks the civil politicians’ grassroots and needs to implant himself. Has the autocratic cultism of the PTI realized this? Consider its allies: Some like the MQM of yore have very strong grassroots– but only patchily. And some facilitative nationalists are so rooted they need to be grafted to create space for modifiable hybrids. The outright military dictator has a free hand in purging political participation and so new faces and local bodies assure a civil electorate or reference of sorts. Even so, neither Ayub’s Basic democrats nor Musharraf’s councillors helped their originators to withstand the test of time. This contrasts with perennial ‘electables’ acceptable as kingmakers who, though rather high up in the national pyramid, have their very own local standing and carry it with them.

Given the PTI’s populist rhetoric and the binding charismatic glue of its leader, it is incongruous that it had to be urged into local political reference; especially after its early dissolution of local bodies in Punjab (or, as in KP and Sindh, the natural expiry of their term). Is the PTI unsure of how or with whom to fill the vacuum without diluting its own intra-provincial space? Be that as it may, since the election commission firmly upheld the electoral code in sundry by-elections; and most recently in local bodies campaigning in PTI’s very own stronghold of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the PM’s cabinet sought to ordain presidential modification.

Ministers, and even the PM may grace the hustings or put in a good word anytime anywhere. Possibly ministers may be more persuasive than a common garden candidate blowing his own trumpet: Official clout is possibly as relevant in a PTI-led democracy as in the time of Ayub’s admittedly indirect democracy.

There is another disturbing corollary: Is the PTI’s highly visible and vociferous electoral support not the stuff of enough locals in enough local bodies? Do the party foundations, despite 20-odd years of the founder’s arduous organizational leadership, still have to be built upwards to connect the reality with the dream? Does the party hierarchy begin and stop at the top without the pull of entertaining demagoguery? Or is the PTI aiming at an even heavier mandate than that conferred by the parliamentary majority that proved Nawaz Sharif’s undoing through the simple expedient of disqualifying challengers and suppressing dissent. One party is so much easier to forge ahead with; a PTI monopoly on the pluralities of national interest as it were.

What about its cherished expat following? If ‘out’ on local bodies votes what rationale for enfranchisement in national or provincial elections? Do they merit weightage status at some levels—EVMs for some but not all? Disproportional representation could be significant. Duality, renunciation, and timing for and of the expat vote may have decisive potential electorally.

And a parting thought: digitally it’s not the thumbs and fingers of our hands that determine all that much technologically. The days ahead of us may be quite uncluttered by political squabbling and debate by ordaining/devising a glitch-free winner takes all system, amounting to One-party rule. Could the electorate soon be out of a job? Thankfully they haven’t yet classified it as fake news to ask a question. CMLA General Zia was the acronym for cancel my last amendment went the pre-digital era joke. The PTI it would appear just needs to keep amending amendments: by ordinance rather than parliamentary process.