KARACHI: Local government systems are meant to empower, but experts referring to recent Save Sindh rallies pointed out that in this country, they are not sufficient for democracy and have led to feelings of alienation among some ethnic groups.
At a seminar on the devolution of power organised as a part of Karachi University’s international conference on federalism, academics argued that the country’s political landscape is more complex than most people believe and that local government systems turn a blind eye towards the aspirations of some groups.
Dr Aasim Sajjad Akhtar from Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad, highlighted the historical tension between local government systems and the provinces in Pakistan. “Unfortunately, almost all of the local government system experiments in the country have been conducted under military regimes. They have been used to legitimise fundamentally undemocratic rules.” Through these pliant local regimes, the authoritarian regimes at the centre bypassed the provincial governments altogether, protecting themselves from any challenges. Dr Akhtar claimed that in doing so, local government systems had actually hindered any real devolution of power to provinces in Pakistan and aggravated ethno-national movements.
“Historically, local government systems have been used as a means to co-opt the middle and lower classes. But at the same time, they have ignored the demand of certain ethnic groups and alienated them,” said Dr Akhtar. “The democratic material was removed from local government systems and they were simply converted into instruments to distribute patronage.” Because the systems have been so apolitical, ethnic groups have viewed them with great suspicion. The spate of protests that nationalists organised against the Sindh Peoples Government Act (SPLGA) is the most recent manifestation of this.
Dr Akhtar also lamented the fact that people fail to recognise the numerous claimants to power in Pakistan – the SPLGA is the result of negotiation between only two groups and hence cannot claim to accommodate the needs of other ones in Sindh. “In military regimes, leaders co-opt only the groups they want to. But [with the SPLGA] we are still seeing various claimants to power, saying that they have been left out. This points out that we are simply ignoring the numerous divisions that exist in Pakistan.”
He added that the only solution to the problem was to prevent authoritarian rule from derailing the political process. “Though this is an obvious point, it still needs to be repeated from time to time because the urban middle class is simply not interested in politics. They have a problem with it because it is messy, complicated and produces leaders which they simply do not like,” he said. “This is a real problem because members of the middle-class who sit in the media and schools are the ones who make public opinion.”
Meahwhile in Sri Lanka…
Dr Jehan Perera, the executive director of the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka, said that though the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam – the most threatening separatist group in the country – had been defeated over three years ago, uneasy and “negative” peace now prevails there. The country had witnessed terrible conflict for over 30 years where members from the Tamil minority violently tried to carve out their own country in the northern part of Sri Lanka, where the Sinhalese comprise nearly 75 per cent of the population. The Tamils, about 15 per cent of the population, mostly live in the north of the country while Muslims form 10 per cent of the population and live in the eastern parts.
Though the bloody tussle between the LTTE and Sinhalese has ended, all is not well. Through a recent amendment to the constitution, Sri Lanka’s centre was trying to wrench all power back from the provincial councils. “Given their majority, Sinhalese form the government. All the top leaders are Sinhalese. Because of this, the ethnic minorities fear that the tyranny of the majority.” Yet in the country, there is no popular support for the devolution of power because like their Pakistani counterparts, the ruling elite in Sri Lanka feel that it will lead to the fragmentation of the country.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 8th, 2012.