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Cherishing real democracy

Political parties will lose moral ground and legitimacy to rule without allowing local governments to function and gain roots

Cherishing real democracy

A plethora of hiccups have made local government elections a forlorn hope. Infuriated by dilatory tactics of the provinces, the Supreme Court issued fresh orders to hold local government elections by November 15. Yet the reasons are ample to let it not happen.

Election Commission’s procedural obligations need at least six months to arrange polls, if all goes unhindered. Fresh delimitation, printing of ballot papers and a range of other arrangements are bound to delay the local elections beyond Supreme Court’s desired timeline. It’s been more than a year when provincial assemblies approved local government laws, yet elections are being postponed through dilatory tactics.

All provincial assemblies approved local government laws in 2013. Balochistan is the only province that held local government elections in December 2013 but the local governments are not in place so far. Hence, local government system is non-existent in Pakistan for all practical purposes.

Local governments are not only a constitutional obligation under Article 140-A but also a logical extension of parliamentary democracy. Since 2009, democracy has been limping without local governments. Both the PPP and PML-N are in power corridor for six years but both did not take any serious steps towards formation of the local governments. Both leading parties ostensibly relish democracy and cherish their democratic credentials yet committed a willful default on sharing democratic dividends with citizens.

In Sindh, the PPP and its allies remained engaged in endless negotiations on the local government law during its previous regime that completed its term in 2013. The negotiations resulted in a highly controversial Sindh People’s Local Government Act in 2012 that was subsequently supplanted with a revised law in 2013. This law has gone through numerous subsequent alterations. Certain clauses of the law were challenged in the Sindh High Court and the Sindh government appealed against the verdict.

Supreme Court ordered legislation for empowering the ECP to undertake delimitation, yet the provincial government took more than seven months to amend the law. Some 65,000 candidates have already filed their nomination papers for local government elections but those nominations are reduced to paper waste.

The PPP rightly boasts 18th Amendment as a great triumph of democracy, yet it did not demonstrate the same spirit for decentralising powers from provincial headquarters to districts and lower tiers.

 Local governments are not only a constitutional obligation under Article 140-A but also a logical extension of parliamentary democracy.

The PML-N held the throne of Punjab for last six years but they also remained glued to status-quo. Filing of nomination papers was completed in December 2013. According to Punjab Local Government Act 2013, the provincial government has been authorised to undertake delimitations. However, on December 31, a full bench of the Lahore High Court declared this process of delimitations illegal. The court also directed that section 8 and 9 of the Act be amended, thus empowering the Election Commission to carry out the delimitations. The ECP after being bestowed with the requisite powers has requested to extend the date as the delimitation process and printing of ballot papers required time.

In KP, the PTI promised to hold elections within 90 days after forming the provincial government. The party could not respect its promise. Whereas KP does not require new delimitation, the PTI is adamant to introduce electronic voting in local government elections and that needs time to arrange required hardware and systems. Fulfillment of these pre-requisites is not likely to see the light of day before another year. In a recent development, the KP government has agreed to compromise on electronic voting machines to ensure earliest possible local government elections in the province.

Similarly local government law for Islamabad Capital Territory has been approved by the relevant standing committee of the National Assembly. It has to cross remaining barriers before the capital city get rid of bureaucratic shackles.

After the passage of 18th Amendment, provincial headquarters imitated Islamabad and emerged as new power centres while mistreating their own districts.

Unelected dictators always avidly promoted local governments, however for the sake of their dictatorial ascendency. It is sheer lack of sagacity to exalt dictators for their ruse of strengthening local government system. In fact, they would create a string of fiefdoms to devolve powers and resources to a coterie of their loyal, thus cementing their regime at lower level while ignoring provincial governments which is an indelible constitutional tier of the federation. What is imprudent on part of elected regimes is that in a fit of concentrating their rule in provincial headquarters, they did not like to unbundle their stack of powers.

Elected regimes have unfortunately their own appetite for powers and propensity of ruling the subjects rather than serving them. Predominantly comprising extravagant rich who splash millions to get elected, the sordid elite consider it their legitimate right to recover their investments with markup. As a corollary to that, legislators have relegated themselves to market vendors trading contracts, jobs, postings and transfers. Political parties have thus made the mockery of democracy and actually buttressed the illegitimate authority of elite in the country.

Key state functions e.g. providing basic services, livelihood and employment opportunities, security, law and order and justice have thus been clamped in the fist of bureaucracy and elected representatives, compelling citizens to pay allegiance to these local power lords. Since a local government system will invariably decentralise basic services and grassroots level development, the elected representatives are reluctant to let them exist, let alone flourish. But if it becomes inevitable, they will employ all means to bring them in their family fold by installing their progenies on local thrones.

Large size of constituencies and prohibitively exorbitant electoral campaigns make it affordable only for filthy rich to contest elections for national and provincial assemblies. This elite capture has ostracised the lower and middle class echelon from mainstream politics.

Local governments are a small aperture for politically marginalised citizenry, particularly for women, working classes and minorities to acquire some space in governance. Denying this space is a denial of democratic dividends to those who struggled for decades and sacrificed their lives for restitution of democracy.

Political parties will lose moral ground and legitimacy to rule without integrating these marginalised groups. Not allowing local governments to function and gain roots would be tantamount to chopping off the branch on which political parties have nested. This unpardonable remiss will take its toll by rendering democracy an unrealised dream. In the long run, a sustainable local government system will bestow sustainability to a fledgling democratic dispensation. Devolving basic services to lower tiers will relieve legislators from a superfluous onus enabling them to veer their focus towards higher level of policy formulation and legislation.

Legislators’ penchant for infringing upon the domain of service delivery has created a chaos in the society. They neither do justice with legislation and policy making nor can they manage basic services from provincial headquarters. Centralisation of basic services is piling frustration among commoners and democracy is becoming insipid for them.

Revival of local governments and their smooth functioning will help restore eroded confidence of masses in democracy. Crippled and debilitated by a deluge of problems in everyday life, hapless citizens can be provided considerable succor even through a sop of basic municipal services. They have forgotten quality life services and beseech for just enough space to breath. If elected governments mercifully allow a fraction of local governments to function, it will guarantee their own longevity and survival. Ultimately it can invigorate an anemic democracy in the country.

Naseer Memon

naseer memon
Naseer Memon is a human rights activist and civil society professional. He may be reached at [email protected]

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