Saturday June 22, 2024

Whose government?

By Azam Khalil
December 21, 2015

Local government is a basic ingredient of democracy. Therefore, the demand to have a local government system in place continued in the country till the time the powers to be – read: the Supreme Court of Pakistan – intervened and ordered the incumbent government to hold these elections.

The elections have been completed in three phases, raising more questions than providing answers to the longstanding issues that confront the institution of democracy in this country. One has to look back to see how this institution was used/misused by various governments in Pakistan.

Gen Ayub Khan played havoc with local government when he introduced the Basic Democracies system which ultimately failed. Then dictator Ziaul Haq tried to sugarcoat a martial law regime with local bodies in the country mainly to create a façade that he had introduced democracy at the grassroots level of Pakistan.

At that time the elected members of these bodies had very little choice but to follow the dictator but at the same time they had certain limited powers, both administrative and financial. This in turn helped Zia improve the image of his martial law and at the same time provided some sort of relief to the common man who could approach these ‘elected’ members of the local government for small-time grievances.

After this another dictator Pervez Musharraf amended the local government laws which gave generous financial and administrative powers to the local government institutions. Since there was no check on this system, widespread corruption and maladministration were reported from every part of the country where billions of rupees went down the drain instead of being utilised for the benefit of the people of this country. Audit reports showed massive corruption and pointed out those who were responsible for it. However, since these bodies were providing political support to Musharraf, he shied away from taking any action against those who had indulged in massive plunder of resources that were meant to be utilised on public welfare projects. This system also ended in failure and died when Musharraf lost power in Pakistan.

The present government was at first not inclined to hold local government elections ostensibly due to two reasons: one, that they did not want to pass on any powers at the grassroots level; and two, they were not prepared to part with any funds. This has resulted in the formation of a system which is again destined for doom because without any financial or administrative powers it will not be possible for these elected bodies to help the poor in this country.

Another issue that has arisen with these elections is the arbitrary powers conferred on non-elected members of the bureaucracy who have been given a say not only in the financial matters of the district councils but can also suspend these elected members at their discretion.

Those elected in the local government system are well within their rights to ask why a secretary in the local government or for that matter a DCO can take any action against those members who have been elected by the people of this country.

On the other hand, the provincial governments seem equally determined not to allow even a trickle of financial or administrative power to these elected members of the local government system. They will remain at best showpieces in the democratic setup of the country – useless in their present form for the people of Pakistan. This is bound to lead to a struggle on the part of the newly elected representatives at the grassroots level to challenge those who have not only usurped the powers of local representatives to serve the people but also deprived them of legitimate finances that are in fact quite essential for their very existence.

The so-called committees formed to monitor even minor developmental schemes will create serious impediments and the veto power given to these committees over all developmental projects will do more harm to the system than any good that is expected from them. Already voices have been raised in certain parts of Sindh and Punjab that in case the original powers that vested with the local government representatives in the Musharraf era are not given to them they will agitate to get them back.

In case there is social unrest due to this power struggle the very purpose of holding these elections will be defeated.

One hopes that sanity prevails and some middle road is found whereby local body representatives are allowed to function; something that can in real terms be defined as delegation of power, both financial and administrative. This in turn will create an atmosphere where people start believing that they are indeed being allowed to participate in the affairs of the country.

This will help strengthen the institution of democracy by providing it with a firm platform, which will go a long way in improving the present political atmosphere of the country. On the other hand, if these representatives remain deprived and are reduced only to holding visiting cards for themselves then the dream of democracy will remain unfulfilled.