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Democracy without the basics

Elected governments have continued to drag their heels on holding local government elections

By Hasnaat Malik |
PHOTO: FILE
PUBLISHED October 24, 2021
ISLAMABAD:

Despite insertion of Article 140-A of constitution through 18th constitutional amendment in 2010, major political parties have failed to establish an effective local government system in the country.

According to Article 140-A, 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. Even the Supreme Court interpreted Article 140-A in the Imrana Tiwana case.

Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N) and Pakistan People's Party (PPP) formed governments in different provinces during the last one decade but these have shown little interest in introducing 'effective local government system'.

Even though the superior judiciary played major role in holding local government polls during the last PML-N regime. The apex court compelled provinces to announce the elections schedule. Despite superior judiciary's intervention, the political parties did not devolve power to local governments. Every provincial government however did introduce different local government systems during the last ten years.

Now it is high time that all political parties should evolve consensus on one local government system for all provinces. None of the political party took initiative by convening all parties’ conference in order to shift the power on grassroots level. Therefore political analysts believe that it is total failure of political parties that constitutional obligations of establishing effective local government system could not be fulfilled.

Umer Gilani advocate, who contested regarding restoration of local governments case in Punjab said that the restoration of Punjab's elected local governments which had been dissolved through a provincial law is a landmark development in our constitutional history on March 25. The credit for this goes to the grassroots activists who patiently pushed this case in the courts for over two years and to the Supreme Court itself which adopted a purposive interpretation of Article 140A: “However, it is an unfortunate reality that the top leadership of major political party is not seriously committed to empowermemt of elected local governments. This is because the dynasties that rule political parties feel threatened by the grassroots politicians who are spawned in the nursery of local governments. It is because of this lukewarm political support that local governments get rolled back every few years without any serious political backlash.”

Right organisations ‘Democracy Reporting International’ published a paper titled, ‘Why political parties in Pakistan discontinue the elected local governments so often.’ The paper says that there are multiple reasons for this lack of continuity, and the most important factor is resistance from stakeholders – primarily from the political parties and bureaucracy.

The paper further says that reforms take time to gain momentum and to generate public ownership and support. Local governments have, unfortunately, rarely survived long enough for a real assessment of their strengths and weaknesses and to eventually create room for improvement and innovation. Once a new system has been introduced in a province, the public and other stakeholders require time to gauge the performance of the system and its participants. More importantly, the public and other stakeholders require time to become familiar with the specifics of a new system and to benefit from what it has to offer. As soon as the public understands a new system, we see legislators tinkering with it - or scrapping it altogether.

The paper contends that, among the many factors that have impeded the introduction and sustainability of local governments and their associated reforms, a lack of political involvement and, thus, political ownership remain the biggest barriers towards effective devolution. In acknowledging this as one reason for the lack of local government sustainability, the paper also demonstrates that this lack of political will to support or endorse initiatives to strengthen local government occurs as a result of “efforts by parties to maintain political control and concentrated provincial control, a powerful bureaucracy, and reduced authority on the part of local governments themselves.”

It is further stated that local government reforms have kept emerging and collapsing in Pakistan because it has become such a high-stakes issue of power and resource distribution among various levels of the government, as well as among political parties. “Ironically, local governments have always been promoted in times of martial law, and have been opposed by political parties. Autocrats in Pakistan (Generals Ayub Khan 1958-1968, Muhammad Zia-ulHaq 1977-1988 and Pervez Musharraf 1999-2007) all conducted elections for local government, seeking political legitimacy at the local level for the continuance of their military rule.”

“Democratic governments, on the other hand, feared that local governments would weaken their central control, and normally avoided holding local elections. In 1993, during her election campaign, Benazir Bhutto said on national media that people in villages were living without any government. She was absolutely correct, but she could never deliver on local government reforms or elections that was to be done by an autocrat, Musharraf ten years later, in 2002, only to once again be rendered dysfunctional in 2007. Today 13 years later they are still dysfunctional, without any real power or relevance. The system introduced by Musharraf in 2002 improved representation, accountability and the delivery of services, despite the problematic motivation to dress up his military rule. The system was considered successful but could not sustain itself beyond the years of military rule.”

One section of political analysts believe that democratic regimes remained fragile. Due to civil military relationship, PPP and PML-N governments faced many challenges in their tenure. So civilian leadership only focused for their survival rather than giving attention on political reforms.

However, Democracy Reporting International's paper states that if a political party chooses to conduct local elections, evidence suggests that the timing is based on political decision making, and this plays a key role in local government decentralisation. Political parties always find it hard to conduct local elections, and the most important factor for the initiation of local government reforms initiation is likely the timing.

The paper states that Pakistan has experimented with local government reforms in a number of ways in different politicaleras, reflecting the different political choices and circumstances of the times. An early instance of this came from the British, who introduced a system that by passed the local representatives and structures of the village and panchayats (village councils) and replaced them with the administration of these tiers bureaucrats, i.e. the commissioners, thereby eliminating the involvement of local representation. Over time, the British governance system also provided for increased provincial control through district administrations. In the absence of political consensus, this bureaucratic involvement only increased over the years.

“Many aspects of the British system of local governance, including its centralised approach and diminished political involvement, were inherited by Pakistan upon its independence, and the practice of the erosion of political involvement and ownership of local governance continued,” the paper elaborates. “While the first post-independence introduction of local government reforms and elections took place under the autocratic regimes of Generals Khan, Zia-ul Haqand, later, Musharraf, it should be noted that these reforms also played a fundamental role in diminishing national political involvement. This was primarily achieved through consolidating centralized power and creating replacement structures that disconnected national politics and politicians from local politics.”

Over the past decade, all four of Pakistan's provinces have implemented local government reforms to some degree. The fact that these reforms have taken place on the orders of the Supreme Court suggests political reluctance to implement. The paper says that the 18th Amendment to the Constitution of Pakistan of 2010, which essentially changed the country from a semi-presidential to a parliamentary republic, provided the impetus needed to reintroduce decentralization through greater provincial autonomy. It mandated the establishment of local government at the provincial levels (and in regions administered by the federal level) and called for fiscal, political, and administrative devolution, thereby providing local governments with constitutional protection.

Though provincial legislation for local government was passed in 2013, it was not until 2015 that local government elections took place — and then only following court orders — in Sindh, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab. However, the sustainability of the governments elected remains inconsistent and questionable. As of today, local government elections have been delayed in all of the provinces. The Election Act of 2017, in its section 2019 (4), stipulates that elections be held within 120 days of the completion of the term of the previous local government. In February, Supreme Court took notice over the delay in local government elections but the provincial governments are not ready to give schedule of local governments polls.

“The local government in Punjab was dissolved in May of 2019, with a commitment to hold elections within 120 days. Similarly, the Balochistan government completed its term in January 2019 and the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa local government completed its term in August 2019. These delays of more than a year call into question the political commitment to institutions of local government. The lack of commitment to and continuity of local government bodies affects the sustainability of the scheme. This issue is at the core of why devolution has not happened successfully in Pakistan, and is one of the many issues that hinders local governments in taking root,” says the paper.

“Political parties change their positions depending on whether they are in opposition or in the government. The basic issue of whether elections should be held on a party or non-party basis is a good example of this. Once in opposition, political parties promise reforms on a party basis. However, once in power and drafting the related legislation, they opt for non-party based elections. This stems from their fear that it will be difficult for the incumbent government to win elections based on a party basis at the grassroots. This fear weakens the political party, but ensures that they are not criticized for their performance in these elections. The Punjab government in 2013 initially wanted non-party elections for the union. However, due to successful petitions in the court, elections were on a party basis”

Most political parties in Pakistan do not have a history of being organised at the local level, and tend to have centralised control. The lack of political devolution at the local level is also a sign of weakness in the national democratic structure, which lacks a foundation of political representation and participation at the grass roots level. The inclusion of party-based local elections creates an incentive for political parties but, as mentioned, it also creates a sense of insecurity. For example, PTI owed much of its 2018 General elections seat-count in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to its performance at the provincial and local levels. Over the years, it has emerged as an advocate of local government through its progress reforms, devolving a great deal of political, financial, and functional power. However, since forming the government in 2018, it has ignored the constitutional requirement for the holding of local elections, citing a number of different reasons for the delay.

Democracy Reporting International's paper says that the way power is organised between bureaucracy, elected Members of the National Assembly (MNAs) and of the Provincial Assemblies (MPAs) at the moment means they are reluctant to delegate power to the local level, fearing loss of influence and of control over funds. The traditional local government systems will always have an uneasy relationship with the Pakistani provincial bureaucracies, mainly due to the perceived fiduciary risk and weak capacity. However, even the centralization of power has seen Pakistan falling in the corruption perception index to 145. In 2007, a workable local government system was willingly abolished by the new democratic regime in Pakistan, led by two main political parties, the PPP and PML-N, apparently on the advice of the senior bureaucracy. It was in the interests of neither the provincial chief ministers nor the elected members of parliament to decentralize powers to districts and let them have the control over the development of aconstituency of more than 1.5 million people (the average population of a district) and the related resources.”

The paper also states that the introduction of discretionary funds for MNAs and MPAs is a tool for politicians to secure local support. These are essentially development grants assigned at the discretion of the Prime Minister, and to be used in local constituencies. Attempts at curtailing these funds are often met with resistance. “In many cases, there has been concern around the use of these funds, with many raising an alarm that these are politically motivated expenditures to serve the interests of the political parties, and especially in the pursuit of reelection. These expenditures also bring into conflict the role of local government representatives, such as councilors responsible for service delivery, turning MNAs and MPAs into competitors with local government representatives.”

Supreme Court has adjudicated severals matters related to local governments in recent past. In October last year, the Supreme Court reserved judgment on a petition moved by the Muttahida Qaumi Movement-Pakistan (MQM-P) seeking empowerment and autonomy for local government institutions in Sindh. The ruling is still awaited.

In February, a division bench led by Justice Qazi Faez Isa took notice over delay in local government polls. Even the bench summoned Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) in this matter. Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) is unable to compel provincial governments for holding LG polls.

In March, Supreme Court highlighted dreadful consequences of disenfranchisement of people in a matter related to delay in holding local government elections all over the country.

“We should continuously recollect that the Pakistan, comprising of East and West Pakistan, could not be sustained when the peoples’ elected representatives were not given their due. We cannot remain silent spectators to the disenfranchisement that has been brought about, and when those who have challenged such an act are effectively denied access to justice by administrative measures it raises grave misgivings,” a 12-page judgment, authored by Justice Qazi Faez Isa, stated.

Despite March 25 order regarding restoration of local governments in Punjab, the PTI led government is reluctant to implement the court order.

The term of Punjab local governments will end on December 31. Prime Minister Imran Khan recently asked his party workers to start preparation of local government polls. It is expected that new LG polls will be held next year.

Political parties need to realise that due to non existence of effective local governments, democracy is incomplete. Even though local governments are part of state's definition in the constitution.

Meanwhile, the ECP on Thursday set December 19 and January 16 as dates for first and second phase of local government elections in the province of KP. It is first time in the country history that the ECP has asserted itself to for LG polls in view of Article 140-A of the constitution.