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Repealing 18th Amendment To Dis-Empower Provinces Will Incite Conflict

Pakistan’s history tells us that attempts to suppress provincial autonomy have resulted in greater discord and conflict; one need only look at Bangladesh and Balochistan to see why and how. Opposition to provincial autonomy is rooted in anxieties about democratisation and the empowerment of groups that could challenge and erode the power of the establishment and its partners in power, writes Hassan Javid.

The establishment’s desire to repeal/change the 18th Amendment is the manifestation of a desire to centralise and control all decision-making in the hands of an authoritarian, quasi-technocratic state. Like the idea that Pakistan would benefit from a ‘presidential’ system.

Opposition to provincial autonomy is rooted in anxieties about democratisation and the empowerment of groups that could challenge and erode the power of the establishment and its partners in power. Moreover, the fantasy of an all-powerful, centralised state imposing its will is rooted in the establishment’s (erroneous) view of itself as a benevolent and competent force capable of making and implementing policy, thwarted only by the machinations of ill-intentioned political agitators, corrupt civilian elites, and an undisciplined polity.

Contrary to this, Pakistan’s history tells us something different. Far from strengthening the federation, attempts to suppress provincial autonomy have tended to result in greater discord and conflict; one need only look at Bangladesh and Balochistan to see why and how.

Rather than addressing the genuine problems the provinces have regarding the allocation of resources, attempts to dis-empower the provincial governments and repress political opposition have tended to make things worse. Accommodating provincial aspirations – around resources and identity – might have actually created a stronger federation that found strength in diversity. Instead, the trajectory of institutional development taken by Pakistan is one built on an ultimately self-defeating edifice of exclusion and centralisation.

Indeed, one of the paradoxes of governance in Pakistan is that for all the talk of devolution – the 18th Amendment, local government – very little power has actually been ceded by the Centre. The federal government raises and controls most of the country’s revenue, and local governments have historically had very little actual power (when they have existed at all).

It is often forgotten that the federal structure inherited from colonial rule bore the imprint of a system designed to strengthen the Centre while ceding minimal authority to the provinces.

Pakistan did not even have an upper house of parliament – protecting provincial interests – until 1973, and events prior to that – the dissolution of the 1st Constituent Assembly, One Unit, the Ayub Coup, and Basic Democracies – reflected opposition to provincial empowerment.

Even after 1973, provincial power remained limited until 2010 and even now, as stated above, the Centre continues to control the purse strings. This is not to say the provincial governments and parties are perfect – they obviously are not – but consider how the proposed alternative – centraliesd power – has repeatedly failed in the past. It has delivered philosopher-kings like Ayub, Yahya, Zia, and Musharraf who presided over some of the country’s most divisive, unequal, and problematic regimes, and who didn’t exactly transform Pakistan into a beacon of progress and prosperity.

Let us also not forget how the establishment’s machinations and the pernicious institutional legacy of dictatorship are directly responsible for the hollowed-out nature of Pakistan’s democracy. If the provincial governments are flawed, the best way to improve them might be through more democracy and devolution, particularly at the local level, not less.

If insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly hoping for a different result, what can we say about those behind this latest plan for centralised control?

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