Sharing power at the local level

Our leaders call to have a democratic system in Pakistan, but their efforts hardly match the clamour


Durdana Najam August 12, 2021
The writer is a public policy analyst based in Lahore. She tweets @durdananajam

Murtaza Wahab, the senator from Pakistan Peoples Party, has been made the administrator of Karachi. Notwithstanding his desire to see Karachi transformed into a civilised city with roads paved, sewerage intact, parks flourishing, and public transport adequately facilitating a highly populated city, the metropolis needs elected representatives and not some handpicked blue eyed boy for local governance.

Our leaders shout at the top of their lungs to have a democratic system in Pakistan, but their efforts hardly match the clamour. There are basic rules to democracy besides what we have come to attribute to it i.e. only freedom of speech. One of the integral rules of democracy, especially in a federation, is to decentralise and share power to maximise well-being through good governance. Our leaders on the contrary devise ways to avoid conducting local bodies’ elections. It is just not in their bones to share power or to see power trickle down to enable the least essential person of the country to become important through political participation.

The same pattern is reflected in dealing with the elected representatives within the political parties. Every political party has developed a culture of making a kitchen cabinet that runs the party’s affairs and, if in power, of the country. PPP had suffered from the wall built between the elite and the rest of the party, with the result that the party became irrelevant to its workers and die-hard supporters. The PML-N has been accused of the same behaviour, and according to the disenchanted elements within the party, Nawaz Sharif as prime minister and his brother, as the chief minister Punjab, were inaccessible to their ministers, leave alone the party workers. The party has been blamed for giving key posts to the close relatives of Sharifs.

The parliamentary system that we follow cannot be completed without the third tier in business. On the one hand, the politicians curse one another for not implementing the Constitution, especially the so-called 18th amendment that talks of devolution of power, and on the other, each one of them is keen to follow only that part of the Constitution that fulfills their narrow desires. This practice of selected obedience to the Constitution has made this august document subservient to the whims of the politicians.

The question is: what does the local government do? The city and municipal governments look after police department budgeting, education reform, lower-level courts, and local infrastructure. Although the federal government can address issues in these fields, its actions would lack the oversight required to deal with local issues. Moreover, in the absence of local government, the federal government’s funding usually goes wasted because of no policy perspective backing the projects.

According to Mary Turck, an American writer and activist, “Politics and government start at the local level. Working together, people can demand better lighting on their streets, increased library hours or an end to public subsidies for stadium construction. Voters who succeed in affecting local government policy and electing their preferred candidates will feel more empowered to have a say on the direction of their state or country.” The keyword is empowerment, which people start having once they elect candidates of their liking to run their neighborhood and communities.

Recently climate change has started becoming part of our political discourse mainly because of Prime Minister Imran Khan’s interest in tree plantation to curb the adverse effects of climate change. The trend has shown that local governments are usually the best administrative unit to tackle climate breakdown. This is because of their unique knowledge of particular areas, track record in service delivery, and regulatory and procurement powers that can be easily translated into a well-defined policy prescription to drive carbon emissions reductions all over the country.

Unfortunately, the value of local elections is not as widely reflected in the media as in the General Election, whereas local elections have real consequences. The irony is that unless the Supreme Court of Pakistan weighs down on the governments, they do not feel the compulsion to give the people their constitutional right to appoint local government for a better living.

The biggest bottleneck to conducting local body elections is bureaucracy. I still remember once asking a bureaucrat about his government’s failure for not prioritising local body elections. He shot back, saying that there was no need for local representatives in the presence of the administrative officers (DMG). So the politicians and bureaucrats are the duos that resist local representatives because then there would be the third split in the power and money pie.

Murtaza Wahab, being a senator, should be involved in policymaking through scholarly reading, observation, and debates rather than fixing street lights, managing drinking water, building and maintaining streets and bridges.

Published in The Express Tribune, August 12th, 2021.

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