Politicians in power are reluctant to hold local government elections and empower the elected councillors because this would mean sharing power and resources with them.
Military rulers readily hold local bodies’ elections because this enables them to find allies to tackle political parties that challenge their undemocratic rule.
In both cases, vested interest is the driving force in shaping up their stance towards the local governments. Rather than devolving authority and empowering the local bodies, the primary concern of both the civilian and military rulers is to retain control our resources and sustain their power.
This is a paradoxical situation as the civilian governments should be devolving power to the grassroots through democratic local government institutions. The military regimes ought to be doing exactly the opposite as holding elections even if these are for the local bodies’ is a democratic process, which the ruling generals tend to block through coups.
The elections for local government in Pakistan are held on non-party basis. This suits the military dictators as political parties are excluded from the process. The parties also suffer splits as many of their members defy the leadership and agree to contest the party-less local government polls. The political parties, too, haven’t done much to hold party-based local government elections.
Pakistan’s history is replete with instances that follow the course mentioned above. The ruling elite, whether civil or military, promise to establish a devolved system of local government to empower the masses at the grassroots level and provide them basic services at their doorsteps. The promise is repeated but seldom fulfilled.
While in the opposition, every political party in its manifesto and election campaign makes a pledge to hold local government elections, but it is forgotten after coming into power.
Under pressure from its own assembly members and also allies, the ruling parties look for excuses to delay holding local government polls. Even if the elections are somehow held, ways and means are found to manipulate and control the elected local bodies’ through the selective use of laws and funds. Devolution of powers is a favourite slogan of all political parties, though in practice it amounts to devolving power to their government and institutions instead of others.
In comparison, military rulers are happy to organise local government elections and empower the elected councillors as a means to weaken political parties that don’t accept their authoritarian rule. The military dictators try to use the local government institutions as a substitute for the elected assemblies because they don’t threaten their illegal and constitutional rule.
Their purpose in holding local governments has little to do with empowering the people at the grassroot level and more to do with finding a constituency to gain legitimacy and prolong their rule.
Hopes were raised after the May 2013 general elections that the elected local government system would be revived. The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz-led federal government under Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif appeared determined to hold the local bodies’ polls. Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), which emerged as the second most popular party in the country as a result of the May 2013 elections, was even more determined to do so as its founder-chairman Imran Khan had promised to hold the local government polls within 90 days after coming into power.
The PTI got a chance to fulfill Imran’s promise in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa where the party won the election and formed a coalition government, but 16 months have passed and no timeframe has yet been given for holding the local bodies’ polls.
The PML-N government in Punjab and that of the PPP in Sindh, where the MQM is now part of the coalition government, have also not been able to hold the local government elections due to a host of issues, such as the controversy over delimitation of constituencies and amendments in the provincial laws.
Surprisingly, Pakistan’s most under-developed province, Balochistan, took the lead by holding the local bodies’ polls in December 2013. It was a challenge to make this happen due to the serious law and order situation resulting from the low-intensity insurgency spearheaded by the Baloch separatist groups, the sectarian terrorism unleashed by Sunni extremists against the Shia Hazara community, and the TTP-sponsored acts of terror targetting the security forces and law-enforcement agencies.
The process was peaceful and political parties were allowed to field candidates. The parties forming the coalition government, including Chief Minister Dr Abdul Malik Baloch’s National Party, Mahmood Khan Achakzai’s Pashtunkhwa Milli Awami Party and the PML-N, along with Maulana Fazlur Rahman’s JUI-F and the independents, won most of the seats. The independents did quite well to expose the limitations of the political parties and would play a decisive role in many districts in the election for nazims.
Balochistan showed the way even though the process was stalled in the province as the district nazims have yet to be elected. In the other provinces, excuses were found or the circumstances led to the delay in holding the local government polls.
The situation in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa was interesting as time and effort was spent in devising a new local government system incorporating the PTI and Imran’s vision and doing the necessary legislation. Many bureaucrats and some experts felt the proposed system was ambitious and would cost a lot. However, the most pertinent question was if the new local government system would be able to deliver in view of the huge expectations of the people who had been promised time and again that they were about to be empowered in a manner that had no parallel in the past.
Also under consideration is a system of local government for the people of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata), which has suffered the most from militancy and military operations and has been in turmoil for more than a decade. The seven tribal agencies and six Frontier Regions forming Fata have 12 seats in the National Assembly and eight in the Senate, but the need for giving it a local government system is being felt for some time now and could be realised in the coming years. However, the issue continues to stir controversy as one witnessed at a recent conference when some parliamentarians from Fata argued that the government should first empower them and then consider installation of a local government system there due to acute lack of funds that could be shared.
The performance of the elected local governments in the past was far from satisfactory even though many promising politicians were groomed by the system. Though the federal and provincial governments, too, at times played a negative role in affecting the performance of the elected mayors, nazims and councillors through the misuse of funds and manipulation of laws, the elected officials of the local bodies were also responsible for some of the mess seen at these institutions.
Most of the funds were eaten up by non-development spending on perks and benefits of the elected representatives, staff salaries, and utility bills and not much was left to undertake development schemes that were supposed to deliver services at the doorsteps of the people.
There was no proper system of check and balance and in many instances the elected district nazims were dragged to the courts on charges of corruption and misuse of power. It is Pakistan’s misfortune that ideas, systems, and projects that are launched with the best of intentions fall by the wayside due to rampant corruption, absence of oversight, and lack of accountability.
One hopes the local government system that would be hopefully put in place eventually, even if it is delayed by a year or two, would cater to the needs of the people and take democracy to the village and mohalla level. The job would be done even if 50 percent or less of the high promises that are made with regard to the benefits of the local government system are fulfilled.