Nabi Jan Orakzai, Muhammad Tayyeb

Despite the passage of more than one year, the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government has failed to hold new Local Government elections in the province, causing multiple problems for the masses at the grass-root level in the delivery of services.

The previous setup of local bodies in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa was dissolved on Aug 28 after its four years tenure. The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP), under Article 140-A of the Constitution and Section (4) 219 of the Election Act 2017, is bound to hold elections within 120 days after the expiry of the term of local governments in the province. As per the law, new polls should have been held before Dec 27, 2019.

The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Assembly has already passed the new Local Government Act, 2019 in April replacing the one enacted in 2013. Instead of holding new polls, the KP government sought time to address certain technicalities in consultations with all the key stakeholders. The ECP held several meetings with the representatives of the provincial government. In February, the commission asked the provincial government to complete all the technicalities by April, otherwise, it would not be able to hold the polls.

In a bid to provide legal cover to the deferment of the elections, the KP government passed the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Epidemic Control and Emergency Relief Bill, 2020 in July. Under the bill, the local government elections cannot be held for two years in light of the coronavirus-induced emergency.

Earlier, the PTI government in the province promulgated the KP Epidemic Control and Emergency Relief Ordinance, 2020 in June to provide instant legal protection for the non-holding of the required local government elections until the continuation of the declaration of the health emergency.

Critics have been terming the passage of the said bill as a delaying tactic by the government. Since there is no local government in place, billions of rupees developmental funds are not being utilized and getting lapsed, as a result, people’s interests are at the grass-root level are being affected, remarks, Muhammad Faheem, a local journalist who has been covering local governments for his media organization.

“The provincial government had allocated more than Rs100 billion for the local governments during the past two years but it never seemed sincere in releasing the funds. If these funds had been utilized through the local government representatives, the masses would have benefited to a great extent. Actually, the government doesn’t want to release the funds that is why it is not interested in setting up the system,” Faheem remarks.

He maintains that the provincial government is also short of funds and is not in a position to release it to the local government department. Further, it has enacted stringent rules for the local bodies to utilize the funds. “In case the elections are held, it will be difficult for the local government department to prepare its budget and demand for funds from the provincial government,” he adds.

He says that the PTI government wants to hold the local government polls a little before the end of its provincial government tenure so that when the next general elections are held in 2023, PTI should have a major share in the local bodies’ setup. “It is common in our country that the party in power usually grabs more seats in the local government elections. The PTI government is applying the same formula. If PTI has more local government representatives at the time of general elections, they will definitely help the party candidates,” he believes.

Islam Gul, a social worker thinks that the provincial government is deliberately delaying the local government polls and his hiding behind the coronavirus pandemic. “Actually, the provincial lawmakers do not want that developmental funds should be utilized by the local government representatives. They do not want to devolve the power to the grass-root level,” Gul says.

“The ultimate sufferers are the public,” he opines. To supplement his logic, Gul says that many developmental projects regarding sanitation, sewerage, provision of clean drinking water, and repairing of streets and pavements have been withheld as there are no local bodies to spend and utilize the funds. People are suffering due to the non-completion of these projects. They have no clue whom and how to complain,” Gul continues.

Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government’s spokesman and Special Assistant to the Chief Minister on Information Kamran Bangash rubbishes the allegations that the provincial government has been deliberately delaying the local government polls.

“We had a plan to hold the elections in August 2020 and we have completed the required legislations but the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic in March changed the situation,” he says.

“We defer the elections for two years to prevent the spread of the pandemic. We cannot take the risk in uncertainty,” he argues.

Bangash adds that one National Assembly seat and one Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Assembly seat are also lying vacant and the by-elections could not be held so far. “We are monitoring the situation closely. If things turn better in the next two years, we will hold the local government polls,” he vows.

Opposition lawmakers and the public have lambasted the government’s move to delay the local body elections in the province for two years and declared it a violation of the Constitution and the Election Act, 2017.

The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Assembly session could not be summoned for three months due to the coronavirus pandemic, as a result, the legislation process also remained suspended. Shagufta Malik, ANP’s woman legislator says that a number of important bills and adjournment motions could not be tabled in the house due to the corona pandemic.

“I had tabled a bill against domestic violence in 2019 which was adopted by the house. The speaker also constituted a select committee for further discussion on the subject but the same could not be completed in time due to the corona pandemic. Besides, another bill regarding violence against children is also pending. We want to expedite the legislation process but everything has been affected by the pandemic,” she regrets.