The Supreme Court of Pakistan in April 2014 told the federal and provincial governments to complete the necessary legislation within five months in order to give the Election Commission of Pakistan delimitation powers and hold the local government (LG) elections by November 2014. Despite the presence of Article 140-A of the Constitution, LG elections have not been held for the past nine years.
As all political parties want to stay clear of the ‘sin’ that goes by the term ‘devolution of power’, the establishment of local governments is still a dream unfulfilled. Rhetoric and demagogy apart, our political leaders’ love for democracy is beyond any doubt, only if it suits their personal parochial interests.
The constitutional demand of holding LG elections is as sacred as that of holding general elections. General elections, which lead the top leaders of all political parties to the power corridors, must be held on a timely basis, as any discontinuity will severely endanger democracy. But the non-holding of LG elections, which may devolve state power along with funds worth billions of rupees to the grass roots, is okay, nay, even preferable. Whether it’s the Nawaz and Shahbaz duo or their chief critic Imran Khan, whether it’s Asif Ali Zardari or his junior partner Asfandyar Wali — there does not seem to be much difference among them on this score.
The PML-N in Punjab and the PPP in Sindh are in office for consecutive second terms. The PTI had promised to hold LG elections within three months of coming into power in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P). The ANP remained in government for five years in K-P but it never occurred to it that LG elections should be held. The same goes for previous governments in Balochistan. The current government there did hold LG elections, but local bodies could not be established there even after the elections.
After the May 2013 elections, all ruling parties were under pressure to install local bodies, but all of them managed to circumvent this with absolute mastery. The question which none of the leaders would like to answer is: why did their respective governments not pass the required legislation as ordered by the Supreme Court within five months?
According to the claims made by some people, the development funds for the whole of Punjab were used by the PML-N in Lahore. If the LG system was in place, could the national leadership of the PML-N have taken so much political, financial and business advantage? Would there have been sufficient funds left for Lahore to build an expensive Metro Bus project, if the development funds had been distributed equitably among the 34 district governments? Again, if the Metro Bus projects in big cities like Lahore, Faisalabad and Multan are built and run by the local government as is the practice all over the world, what performance would the ‘Khadim-e-Aala’ and the prime minister have to show to the electorate for the next election campaign?
Also, it’s not certain that the ruling parties in the provinces will be able to secure the coveted district positions in all the districts under their direct control through a subservient and collusive bureaucracy if LG elections are held. Sans local government bodies, the chief ministers are virtually as powerful as monarchs.
In the absence of LGs, it is easy to misappropriate development funds. In LGs, even a citizen of a union council knows how much development fund his local councillor has been allotted, who can then be held accountable. Without LGs, public scrutiny becomes minimal; hence, the chances of any accountability come down to almost zero.
The chief ministers, with the blessings of their party heads, want to rule the districts directly through DCOs and DPOs and so, the non-holding of LG elections becomes a shared interest. The party heads, through the chief ministers, use loyal bureaucrats to maintain control over parliamentarians in the districts. Bureaucrats feel comfortable and autonomous in (mis)using power and funds while being directly answerable to chief ministers, who are based in distant provincial capitals. They would prefer this set-up than have local politicians hanging over their heads.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 1st, 2014.
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