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Governance Politics

There’s Only One Answer To Pakistan’s Governance Woes: Local Governments

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Usama Muneer Jathol argues that the real reason behind Pakistan’s governance woes is the inability of the political parties to recognize the importance of local governments.

Decentralization is one of the core tenets of Pakistan’s constitution. However, the ‘torchbearers’ of democracy in our country and parliament cannot care less about the true spirit of democracy and the democratic norms. Since the 18th amendment, people have started demanding their right to rule. During the 2018 elections, a fairly successful political campaign demanding ‘respect for vote’ captured the imagination of the masses. But the fact is that even political parties refuse to recognize the power of the vote. They are not yet ready to introduce democracy within their parties. As a result, Pakistan has failed miserably at developing a proper system of local governments and ensuring the devolution of power.

Since the independence of Pakistan, our politicians, military establishment and administration have failed to demonstrate their belief in democracy. The role of the military establishment is not something unheard of in Pakistan. But even those who are elected to power by the people through the democratic process are not ready to transfer the power to the commoners. These dictatorial attitudes are prevalent throughout the political system. Pakistan’s parliament never took the local bodies seriously and there is also a genuine lack of understanding about the role of local self-government and true democracy.

This has allowed the military elite to usurp the power since the political leadership and their voters do not demonstrate political maturity. It makes them think that only those graduating from the military academy are competent enough to run the affairs of the country. General Musharraf once said, “Our democracy is not mature and I think many politicians do not behave in a mature manner”. The statement coming from a military dictator is not shocking as our political leadership lacks respect for the democratic process and there are no local governments to resist the centralization of powers when military dictators take over.

On paper, Pakistan is a parliamentary federation under the constitution of 1973 and there are three tiers of government: Federal government, the provincial government, and the local government. Local government is an important tier of governance. It is the administrative unit that oversees the executive tasks at the local level. It works as a sub-unit of the government for the welfare of the people. Local governments are responsible for the provision of basic services.

According to Lord Rippen, “these councils (local governments) are the school of democracy”. Local governments provide a platform for common people to participate in policymaking. Our constitution encourages people to participate and develop stakes in the administration of their respective areas because, without strong municipal institutions, it is not possible to build an inclusive administrative system.

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In the modern world, local government is a subject of utmost importance. The constitution of Germany says, “Municipalities must be guaranteed the right to regulate all local affairs on their own responsibility, within the limits prescribed by the laws (German. Const. 28)”.

There are many other examples like the UK, the United States of America and even India where the concept of self-rule is becoming a reality but Pakistan is far from the concept, as the province with 56% of the total population is controlled without the sub-units of administration.

We do not have to look up the constitutions of developed nations as our constitution is prescribing the formulation of the local governments.

Article 32 of the constitution says, “The State shall encourage local Government institutions composed of elected representatives of the areas concerned and in such institutions, the special representation will be given to peasants, workers, and women.” (Pak. Const. art. 32).

It is obvious from article 32 of the constitution of 1973 that the state shall encourage local government institutions and government shall provide an atmosphere for the local representation of the already oppressed local elected representatives. It also ensures the participation of marginalized groups such as women, peasants, working-class people and especially minorities in the local government election.

This article is indeed a benchmark for political actors sitting in provincial and federal legislatures. PTI, PPP, and PMLN had all promised in their respective manifestos to hold elections for local governments and even the current government under Prime Minister Imran Khan had promised a strong local government system but they are nowhere near what they had promised.

Before the July 2018 elections, the chief minister of Punjab suspended the local government representatives and the divisional commissioner took charge, replacing the local elected representatives. So now the bureaucracy is running the local administrative affairs and this is actually against the soul of our constitution. The current government suspended elected representatives because more than 90% of the total were from the opposition party. Salman Abid, while talking with the representatives of the nation, said that whoever was violating the constitution and law was trying to bring in a system that suits the interests of the political elite and provincial governments sitting in Lahore.

In the case of Punjab, Lahore is subverting the constitution by violating the article 140A. After the 18th amendment, the provincial autonomy question was sorted out to some extent but the actual power devolution is yet to be done and provinces are not ready to give powers to the actual representatives of the people.

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Even after the 18th amendment, our system of governance is centralized. This is not only the issue with the current government but previous governments of PPP and PMLN also violated the constitution. More than 0.1 million elected representatives were not happy with their provincial government in Punjab under the-then chief minister Shehbaz Sharif and ironically almost 90% of the elected representatives were from his party.

In Pakistan, the candidates for the national and provincial elections campaign during the elections based on the development work done in their constituencies. Even senators are given development funds for their areas. The legislation is not a matter of importance for them because acquiring development funds is what gives them the political mileage in their respective constituencies. Article 140A of the constitution says that it is the responsibility of the provinces to not only establish a local government by law but also devolve financial, administrative and political powers to the elected representatives of the local governments.

PTI’s current government in KP established a fine system of local governments by allocating 30% of the total development budget to local representatives but now the same government is subverting the right of the people in two provinces of Pakistan. Due to negligence in community development and basic services under local governments, all four provinces are facing an alarming situation.

The 18th amendment indeed gave a large measure of provincial autonomy but in practice, the local people are still living in deplorable conditions. Supreme Court always upheld the article 140A and in its landmark judgment in Raja Rab Nawaz versus federation of Pakistan recognized the local government of Pakistan, stating, “The local government is the most important and vital element in a democracy and ensures a mechanism for the enforcement of Fundamental Rights of the people” (Rab v. federation).

The worst example of the violation of the constitution is the suspension of local government representatives of Punjab. Umer Gillani referred to the dissolution of the local governments as a silent coup by the government of Punjab (Gillani, 2019). He is currently arguing the case against the dissolution of local governments against the Punjab government in Lahore High Court. Unfortunately, the provincial government is displaying a dictatorial attitude by establishing a bureaucratic regime.

The only way forward is the provision of basic services such as proper education, healthcare and community development under local governments. To establish democracy at the grassroots level, the third tier of the federation should be a matter of utmost importance.

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