LAHORE: Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) is set to bring in a new system of local government allowing for directly elected heads, in at least three provinces it is set to rule or share power in, and the Islamabad Capital Territory (ICT), the party leaders say.
“Reforming local government is one of the primary promises we have made in our manifesto,” said Fawad Chaudhry, the PTI Central Spokesperson. “We want to bring directly elected mayors. We want to spend development funds through local governments and through development committees at the local level,” Chaudhry told The News a day before taking oath a member of the National Assembly his party won a majority in after winning the July 25 elections.
He was elaborating upon his party chairman Imran Khan’s words who concluding his party’s poll campaign had pledged to introduce a new system of local government if voted to power. Khan said there would be no development funds for the members of the National Assembly and provincial assemblies adding that the district nazim, to be elected directly, would take a team of technocrats in his cabinet to put the district on the path of development.
Called the third tier of administration after national and provincial ones, local government is protected by the constitution and enabled by legislation in the country’s provinces. Yet local government, which should serve as the basis of a democratic polity, has looked robust and powerful during authoritarian regimes and dormant or ineffective and powerless during democratic setups.
Dictators – Ayub Khan, Ziaul Haq, and Pervez Musharraf – introduced their own versions of local government so that the institutions formed under them served as props to bolster the central edifice weakening the democratic forces’ challenge to their rule.
Elected civilian governments, on the other hand, scorned the local governments as a legacy of authoritarian rulers, yet actually resisting devolution of powers to them. Evidencing that almost all elected federal and provincial governments have been wary of local governments as challengers to their political clout, the previous local government elections held in 2015 were the first in Pakistan’s history held under local government laws passed by elected legislatures. Elected governments dragged feet on holding local government elections. And it was courtesy the Supreme Court that they held the 2015 elections under five different laws enacted by the four provincial assemblies and the federal government (the last one being applicable only for Islamabad Capital Territory). No law gave the LG institutions the financial and administrative authority necessary to function. And hence protests by elected local representatives in all the provinces.
Pakistan Peoples Party, which ruled Sindh, and Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, that held power in Punjab and Balochistan, shirked devolution of powers to the local governments in their provinces.
However, PPP Chairman Bilawal Bhutto’s spokesman Mustafa Nawaz Khokhar defended his party by saying their government, 2008-2013, was the one which introduced 18th constitutional amendment at the federal level devolving dozens of subjects to the provinces and through 7th NFC award increased the share of provinces in the federal kitty. “No reforms have been introduced at the federal level after that. At the provincial level we introduced local government reforms two years ago. Elections were held and local governments are in place since then,” said Khokhar, who is also a member of the Senate since March, in an interview with The News.
On how the PPP will react to introduction of any reforms to the local government laws, he said, “Local government is a provincial subject... they can’t introduce reforms at the federal level.” However, he sounded conciliatory in saying that democracy is an ongoing process and “if need be, keeping in view local conditions and needs, we are not fundamentally opposed to discussing and reforming the law. This will be subject to wider consultations within the party and in the provincial assembly taking all stakeholders on board”.
According to PML-N leader Malik Muhammad Ahmed Khan the 2001 law made by Gen Musharraf regime looked good only because the constitution was in abeyance. “The powers that were given to the local government were actually those of the provincial tier’s under Articles 41 to 53. It was an encroachment on provincial powers. The provinces got them back when the constitution was restored and things settled.”
Khan, who served as the Punjab government spokesman until recently, the 2015 law, which allowed for local government institutions in the province, was made after studying laws prevalent in different countries. “It provided for transfer of 56 percent of the development budget to districts.”
Yet, Khan said there was an issue of capacity at the district level. “For example, if they have to build a road in their area, the contractors available to them will be third-grade ones while the province has first-grade contractors having the capacity to build a metalled road.”
On the proposed reforms, he said, “We will wait and see whatever they (PTI) come up with. We will welcome if they give more financial powers to the local bodies. But if they introduce changes to the local government law to grab more power in the districts, we will resist it.”
The PTI did transfer significant responsibilities and powers to local governments in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa after polls, later extending franchise and powers to the village and neighbourhood level and mandating that at least 30 percent of the provincial development budget be transferred to local governments. But that was not enough to ensure that decisions were made closer to the local people and communities to improve public services for their area. The local governments in KP also had issues of capacity to handle development projects and funds.
According to PML-N’s Ahmad Khan KP did not devolve health and education. “They remained with the provincial tier. Whatever they say is rhetoric.”
Asked whether the PTI will sack the incumbents in Punjab, Sindh and Balochistan, Chaudhry said: “We will drastically change the local government laws in Punjab as well as in other provinces. If you bring in new law, the old one will go.”
Inserted through the 18th Amendment, Article 140A of the constitution calls for the devolution of “political, administrative and financial responsibility and authority to the elected representatives of the local governments”. And so, rather than satisfying any political goals of the government at the centre or in a province, decentralization should hand local governments monetary, managerial and political powers striking a balance between the rural and urban areas. Voluntary Citizens Community Boards (CCBs) should be there to help empower people in making local decisions on planning and development and ensuring transparency and accountability. Empowered local government institutions are also needed to implement the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity. Localisation of SDGs and empowerment of local governments is critical to implementation of the global goals. If this tier of government remains the weakest link in the entire chain and the provinces continue to control most administrative, political and financial powers, achieving the SGDs will remain as elusive as has that of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) been.
Problems in the execution of local governments in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa aside, the PTI has shown that it is committed to devolution in the northwestern province that has returned it to power. Besides Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the PTI is likely to rule Punjab and coalesce with the ruling party in Balochistan province. With the PTI set to introduce the promised reforms in the local government systems in at least three provinces, the PPP, which will run the administration in Sindh province, may not like to lag far behind either. But, said Fawad Chaudhry, I don't think it will be done in the next couple of months. “Till that happens, the present system continues.”