The country is heading towards another general election, not because of a sudden dissolution, but because the current Assemblies are reaching the end of their tenures. If these Assemblies do go to their full five-year term, it would be the second time in succession that they would have done so. However, at this point, the impending election will be on the minds of all politicians. Unlike as with local bodies, there is no provision for continuing in office without elections being held on time. But local body elections are also due. One of the factors preventing them from being held is the inability of the PPP and the MQM to agree on a system for Sindh, a province crucial to both. There is also the parties’ opposed attitude towards local bodies. The MQM thrives on local elections. It emerged because of its initial successes in them. On the other hand, the PPP has never held local body polls at any time in its four stints in office. Perhaps, the reason for this is that local bodies are seen as rivals for power by legislatures, even though it is from local councillors that many provincial and national legislators are recruited. Another reason for this has been the weakness of military regimes for local bodies. The Ayub regime, probably, went the furthest in this, making the lowest tier of the local councils the lynchpin of the system of ‘Basic Democracies’, with these ‘Basic Democrats’ enjoying the vote in the provincial, national and presidential elections, to the exclusion of the ordinary citizen, in what was a system of indirect franchise. The PPP succeeded the regime, its legislators elected on direct adult franchise. The martial law that conducted those elections (and thus presided over the secession of Bangladesh), the Yahya martial law, also remains the only military regime not to have given its own local body system, or conducted local body elections. In succeeding years, Ziaul Haq held elections in 1979 and 1983, while Pervez Musharraf held elections in 2003 and 2012. Musharraf empowered the local councils, abolishing the municipal corporations by merging them in the district councils and putting them under district nazims, who were indirectly elected by the directly elected councillors, and who were given many of the powers of the DCs. Unlike Ayub, neither Zia nor Musharraf used the councillors they had elected as voters in a referendum to approve their rule.Though there are other, more differences, local bodies represent a dividing line between the PPP and the PML-N. The PML-N’s origins can be traced back to the local councils established by the Zia regime, and as the leading lights of the party could trace their links back to Ayub’s Convention Muslim League, there was a tilt in favour of local councils. While Chief Ministers Ghulam Haider Wyne and Manzoor Wattoo had been local councillors and Convention Leaguers, another, Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi, himself a former District Council Chairman, was the nephew of a former Convention League Secretary General. Wattoo and Pervaiz had to leave the PML-N to become Chief Minister, and both ultimately allied with the PPP.The MQM, however, was different. Its cadres had no previous political experience, but their triumph in Karachi and Hyderabad in the 1987 local council elections led to their emergence as a political force. The MQM has controlled the urban centres so completely that it has been part of all Sindh governments since 1988, even though the PPP has thrice (1988, 1993 and 2008) been able to form the government on its own. Yet, the MQM has never held the Chief Ministry because it has always been the smaller partner, and liked the Musharraf regime’s local government system because it empowered local councils.This is, probably, the reason why legislators dislike local councils; too many opportunities of exercising influence are available to councillors. However, for the MQM, which has no chance of capturing the provincial government, but only districts it is interested in, it is as important that local governments get as much power as possible, and correspondingly as important to the PPP (and the PML-N if it becomes the next party of power) that the local councils be kept in check. That is, probably, why the dispute in Sindh centres around the exact distribution of powers between the provincial government and local councils.There has been an element of blackmail in the way the MQM used the PML-N to get its way in Sindh, but here the PPP is also searching for a way to use the local body polls to postpone the general elections, which will be due by early next year. Such are the constitutional provisions, that elections are not necessarily held after five years, but after five years and three months, because the Assemblies are elected for a five-year term, and then there are 90 days to hold elections. There is a constitutional provision preventing the challenging of any act because performance was delayed, and as a matter of fact, the last elections were delayed 41 days, because of the assassination of Ms Benazir Bhutto, thus making the elections a few days late. A delay in the dissolution of the Assemblies would automatically mean that when President Asif Ali Zardari’s term expired, the present Assemblies would be in place, and could proceed to re-elect him. This indicates he is very uncertain about the result of the next election. Though the presidency has been shorn of almost all the powers two military rulers wished, it still enjoys the immunity that he has been using to avoid having the Prime Minister write to the Swiss authorities reopen the cases against him. Especially as the cases predate his presidency, his leaving the office implies loss of that immunity.To be elected by the present Assemblies, they must last until 60 days before the incumbent’s term expires. As that occurs on September 9, 2013, elections to the presidency must be held by August 10, but not earlier than July 11. Whichever date is taken, fresh elections would have been held, unless some extraordinary postponement has taken place. The current Assemblies began their term on March 19, 2008, so elections must occur by May 19, 2013. If, using the holding of local body polls as an excuse, the general election is postponed and the present Assemblies are allowed to continue, then the President would turn to them for re-election. The present Prime Minister is more than likely to go along with this, because he would thus see his tenure expanded accordingly. As it is, he faces replacement by a caretaker as soon as general elections are announced.But the trick of getting an outgoing Assembly to elect an incumbent President did not really work in the case of President Pervez Musharraf, and he had to resign within six months of the meeting of these Assemblies. Therefore, if President Zardari thinks he can pull along with a hostile National Assembly, and thus a hostile government, he must think again. Besides, the only purpose of being President is to enjoy the office’s immunity. With a hostile government, there would be no way of stopping the government obeying the Supreme Court and writing letters to Switzerland. Assuming that the caretaker government had not already written.

The writer is a veteran journalist and founding member as well as Executive Editor of TheNation.Email: maniazi@nation.com.pk­