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Democracy delayed

Frequent delays in local government elections expose a perceptible lacuna in the constitution which does not prescribe any timeframe for mandatory local government elections

Democracy delayed
Gearing up for local elections.

Establishing and strengthening an empowered local government system is the only way to transformg ‘electocracy’ into a genuine democracy. Otherwise the trudge of democracy may end up in a fatigue. After the federating units wringed out a reasonable degree of autonomy through 18th constitutional amendment, they created a new Islamabad in each province.

Powers percolating from Islamabad are subsequently concentrated in the provincial capitals. It essentially denies the fruits of democracy to reach the doorstep of subjects. The recently held elections in Balochistan and KP mark the revival of the local government system that was put into hibernation for quite some time.

Sindh and Punjab have reluctantly announced election dates after baulking for several years. What is dismaying is that all this was not a corollary of any political will on the part of the political parties; it was only because the Supreme Court relentlessly kept nudging the provinces for compliance to this constitutional obligation. In a blatant disregard of Article 140-A, the provinces put off local government elections under flimsy pretexts.

This exposed a perceptible lacuna in the constitution which does not prescribe any timeframe for mandatory local government elections. The provinces exploited this constitutional ambiguity to the hilt and kept citizens at bay from power.

Pakistan has a history of autocratic and over-centralised governance system punctuated by brief spells of controlled democracy. During years-long undemocratic regimes, public representation effectively remained circumscribed. During the respective eras of the three military rulers — Gen. Ayub, Gen. Zia and Gen. Musharraf — the elected assemblies were not allowed to function for several years. All of them introduced moth-eaten local government systems that were used as quasi-representative forums of citizens.

Gen. Ayub’s model was the worst. He followed the footprints of colonial British masters. Britain, after occupying Sindh in 1943 and Punjab in 1949, identified a coterie of loyal who would rule fiefdoms as proxy of the Raj. They paid allegiance to rulers and were allowed to exercise limited local powers. However, they were subordinate to the commissioners who commanded real authority on administrative matters. Ayub’s local government system was almost a mirror image of that model.

Under the Basic Democracies system, the brainchild of Gen. Ayub, 37,959 villages in the country were divided into union councils in rural areas and town committees and union committees in urban areas. The next higher tier was tehsil councils in rural areas and municipal committees and cantonment boards in urban areas, followed by district and divisional councils. However, the real powers were concentrated in the clenched fist of bureaucracy.

The chairman of the municipal committee was appointed by the government. Similarly, an assistant commissioner or tehsildar would be the chairman at town level, a deputy commissioner was the chairman of a district council and the commissioner was heading the respective divisional council. Only at the lowest tier i.e. union councils, town committees and union committees, members were elected on the basis of adult franchise, who then elected a chairman from among themselves. The higher tiers had some members who were indirectly elected by these directly elected members, as well as members nominated by government. Only the lowest tiers of union committees and union councils had elected chairmen.

Through the Basic Democracies Order 1959 (BDO), deputy commissioners were authorised to exercise enormous administrative, electoral, judicial and financial powers. The bureaucracy had powers to trash proceedings, crumple resolutions or orders of any local body and preclude the local body from taking any actions.

The hybrid model of elected and imposed representatives was aimed at creating a fettered system of public representation. This farcical and paraplegic house was made electoral college for the office of the President and the national legislature.

Z.A Bhutto annulled the BD system on January 22, 1972. He promised to provide an improvised local government system. Two local government ordinances were introduced in 1972 and in 1975 but the local governments never saw the light of day till the Bhutto government was toppled by Gen. Zia.

To fulfill his need for legitimacy, Gen. Zia also introduced a local government system. His Local Government Ordinance 1979 also had union councils and district councils in rural areas and town committees and municipal committees in urban areas. A metropolitan corporation was established for Karachi.

However, imitating his predecessor Gen. Ayub, Gen. Zia also fortified bureaucracy’s powers. Deputy commissioner was the king in the district and was not accountable to the elected representatives. Under this system, three elections were held in 1979, 1983 and 1987 during the most brutal martial law of Gen. Zia.

The tumultuous decade of the 90s was marked by frequent dismissals of the four elected governments. An infant democracy remained pre-occupied with thwarting machinations of the wicked establishment of Islamabad. Brief stint of each government was less than enough to mull over any local government system.

It was followed by another military man Gen. Musharraf. Gasping for legitimacy, he brought another novel system through the Local Government Ordinance 2001. He introduced a radical paradigm shift and, for the first time, subordinated bureaucracy to the elected representatives. Deputy commissioners were assigned the role of district coordination officers. Nazims, the elected district heads, were empowered to write annual performance reports of the district coordination officer and the district police officer.

Nurtured during the colonial era, bureaucracy had been ruling the country since its inception. Obviously bureaucracy could not imbibe this shift. Women’s share of 33 per cent at all tiers was also a major leap forward in augmenting their political participation and empowerment. The first local government elections held under the system paved the way for the entry of 36,105 women councilors. Gen. Musharraf, however, completely circumvented the role of provinces and directly managed the local government system from Islamabad in a blatant denial of the fact that it was a provincial subject.

In a bid to please his allies in Sindh, delimitation in Karachi was dexterously crafted. In a city where the party voters were in majority in only two districts, his allies manipulated to grab 14 out of the 18 carefully carved out towns. Rural areas of the city were subsumed into urban areas and the city government was accorded authority over the land affairs. It legalised land grabbing and ‘china cutting’ in Karachi. Stories of the sordid business are now reverberating in media in the wake of ongoing operation.

After Musharraf’s era, a new elected government assumed government in 2008. the landmark 18th Amendment proffered legal guarantee to the local government system. However, the omission of an unequivocal timeline for local government elections allowed provincial governments to adopt dilatory tactics. Some of the countries have provided constitution insulation to local governments by well delineated timelines for the term and elections of local governments.

For example, Section 42 of Philippine’s Local Government Code 1991 stipulates that “unless otherwise provided by law, the elections of local officials shall be held every three years on the second Monday of May.”

In South Africa, local government elections are scheduled two years after the simultaneously held elections of national and provincial governments. India streamlined frequency and timeframe for local governments through 73rd and 74th constitutional amendments for rural and urban local governments respectively. India fixed five years term for local governments and elections were made mandatory within six months after the expiry of a term.

There is an urgent need to retrofit the Article 140-A to lucidly define timeframe for local government elections. A sustainable local government system is imperative for the future of democracy in Pakistan. It will not only bolster image of the country but will also erect a protective shield for a fragile democratic system. For common citizens democracy is not the vacillated platitudes of politicians and litanies of parliamentary proceedings. For them, democracy is a mean to bring mirth, health, education and drinking water in their wretched lives.

Pakistan’s basic services delivery structure is on the verge of collapse due to prolonged absence of the local governance system. In a country with humongous population and sprawling settlements, only an effective locally governed service delivery system can ensure social justice, communal harmony and political stability.

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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