Why is it so difficult to reform local government in Pakistan?

Even when elections are held, power is hardly devolved to the last tier

Durdana Najam April 01, 2021
The writer is a public policy analyst based in Lahore and be reached at [email protected]

Like many issues, the decision that the local body elections are the lifeline of a democratic system sans which governance remains an incomplete project leading to civil unrest has failed to make a wave with the Pakistani politicians. Even Imran Khan, who has been thumping his chest in favour of the local government system when in opposition, has failed to give local government its due stature.

Ironically, either it has been the military government that leveraged local body elections to reach the masses, or the higher court of the country had to force the governments in all provinces to carry out this constitutionally mandatory exercise. There could be many reasons for this reluctance; however, one most quoted is bureaucracy’s unwillingness to share its administrative domain with the political representative at the local level. Another common refrain has been the politicians’ deliberate attempt to keep a large swath of population wallowing in the pain of poverty so that the former could amass wealth through corrupt practices. When the masses are poor, they are also usually uneducated with little or no concept of making their representative accountable for their corrupt practices. In Pakistan, it seems both these reasons have been used in coordination to keep local elections from taking place.

Even when elections are held, power is hardly devolved to the last tier. Without devolution of power, which is linked to financial independence, local body elections have no value. Devolution of power can potentially help address inter- and intra-provincial grievances, the neglect of marginalised ethnic groups and their irredentist claims, and the problems of marginalisation and deprivation of vast segments of the country’s population. Since its founding as a federation in 1947, Pakistan’s history has been marked by periods of military rule, authoritarian political leadership, and centralised administration (even during periods of democratic government). Political patronage and elite-led development policies have done little to alleviate the inequitable distribution of resources across and within different regions of the country.

After independence, Pakistan’s first serious attempt to focus on local governments came under the 1958 martial law, emphasising the need for representative politics at the local level while disbanding central- and provincial-level assemblies. During the British period, what became General Ayub Khan’s local government system was controlled by the bureaucracy and the deputy commissioner’s offices.

Another military-led government under General Ziaul Haq revived the local government system from 1977 to 1988. Like Ayub, Zia undertook political centralisation at the federal and provincial levels while instituting electoral representation at the local level. However, the increased political importance of local bodies was not complemented by the decentralisation of federal or provincial administrative functions, nor by the delegation of any significant financial powers to the local governments. Local governments continued to lack constitutional protections, and their creation and maintenance remained at the whim of the provinces, which retained suspension powers.

During the democratic period of 1988–99, four democratically elected political governments gained power, but none focused on the local government system. They preferred instead to rely on provincial elites using their local patronage systems to keep them in power. The next time Pakistan experimented with devolution was under General (later president) Pervez Musharraf. His devolutionary exercise was also a legitimising strategy for a centralised rule since it did not devolve power from the federal level to the provinces and instead focused on creating local governments on a non-party basis.

As per research, “the 18th Amendment has divided the prerogatives of Pakistan’s multi-tier governance at the federal, inter-provincial, and provincial levels by reviewing the Federal Legislative List Part I and Part II and repealing the Concurrent Legislative List. Afterwards, the central and regional governments’ statutory and policymaking authorities were demarcated by handing over exclusive control of 53 items to the central government, 18 items to the Council of Common Interests (CCI), and all remaining items to the regional governments. Further restructuring of functions at the district, tehsil, and union council levels has been devolved to the regional governments under the policy framework articulated in Article 140(A) of the Constitution."

Moreover, "through the addition of Article 140(A), the 18th Amendment clearly states: 'Each Province shall, by law, establish a local government system and devolve political, administrative, and financial responsibility and authority to the elected representatives of the local governments.' This led to the provision of legislative, institutional, planning, and policy spaces to provinces to make the system of governance context-specific to provide better services at the grassroots level."

Criticisms of bureaucratic hassles and delays apart, the importance of local bodies cannot be discounted, especially in their role in the public delivery of services such as the Public Distribution System, pension schemes, mitigation of disease, outbreaks and disasters. While the ranks secured by the state are signifiers of the outcomes, primarily highlighting the efficacy of delivering services to the public today, scholars argue that decentralisation and people’s participation increased since the 1970s, thanks to the socio-political movements. At this juncture, the presence of robust machinery at the local level is a measure of the health of democracy and people’s participation. Its absence is bound to have an immense effect. In this context, the criticism of the government’s laxity in holding the elections needs to be registered.

Local body elections strengthen political parties’ organisational structures and enable them to stay closely connected with the voters. The numerous opportunities in terms of official posts that open up through local body elections allow political parties to give party workers from multiple backgrounds the opportunity to partake in government functioning. Narendra Subramanian, a professor of political science at McGill University, argues that such broad-based accommodation results in ‘organisational pluralism’, wherein, with intra-party pluralism, a given party’s engagement with society changes its orientation towards an atmosphere of tolerance.

Put otherwise, in a diverse society like Pakistan’s local bodies, it can serve as a means to usher in societal syncretism through broad-based representation. On another note, local bodies provide opportunities for the emergence of leaders at the local level outside of political parties.

The importance of elected local government in a democratic political system is undeniable. It is, in fact, the first step on the democratic ladder in any country.

Published in The Express Tribune, April 1st, 2021.

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