Sunday February 05, 2023

For real change

November 03, 2021

The writer is a freelance contributor.

A few weeks back, Federal Minister for Information Fawad Chaudhry admitted that delaying fresh elections for local governments (LGs) was a mistake on the part of the PTI government. He added that such elections should have been held within the first year of the PTI’s government.

Later, he confessed that the current chief ministers of the provinces are resisting the restoration of LGs. The federal minister should be lauded for stating the truth. The reality is that almost all provincial governments, MNAs, MPAs, and the district administrations manned by the officers of the Pakistan Administrative Service (PAS), indirectly or directly, resist the establishment of local bodies as per the constitution for fear of becoming irrelevant to local politics and losing their clout in promoting their vested interests.

It is pertinent to mention that the Supreme Court (SC) had ordered the Punjab government to restore the local government system by October 20 and also summoned the incumbent and former chief secretaries on the next date to answer why they failed to implement the court’s decision delivered in March 2021.

Our constitution envisages a three-tier system of governance which comprises governments on the local, provincial and federal levels. But it is a regrettable reality that the country has mostly been run on a two-tier system made up of the provincial and federal levels. Even more painful is the fact that elected governments paid no attention to this constitutional obligation, and it is ironic that the country saw powerful local governments when it was being governed by military dictators.

The first local government election was held in 1959, under the dictatorship of Ayub Khan. The second election was held in 1979 by Gen Ziaul Haq. In 2000, Gen Musharraf conducted the third local government election in the country.

The only local bodies election held by an elected government was in December 2015 – even then the government hadn’t decided on its own to fulfil the constitutional obligation, but it acted on the orders of the apex court.

As a result, the local governments established after these elections were not structured in conformity with the spirit of the constitution. Article 140 A of the constitution says, “Each province shall, by law, establish a local government system and devolve political, administrative and financial responsibility and authority to the elected representatives of the local governments.”

It clearly states that the local administration (including the police department) is supposed to be under the elected bodies which are also responsible for carrying out development projects and which have powers to generate financial resources of their own. Bringing the police under control of local governments could have greatly helped in eliminating the prevalent ‘thana culture’. But that was never done.

For quite some time, there have been voices – with fluctuating intensity – for the creation of more provinces in the country. We have heard demands for the creation of a new province of South Punjab, the restoration of the state of Bahawalpur, carving out the Hazara province from the present Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), and making Karachi a separate governing unit. Factors such as poor governance, a lack of development, and the glaring distance between cities and the provincial capitals have been the main arguments in favour of the creation of more provinces.

My opinion, which is shared by a number of intellectual and political analysts, is that politics of more provinces is nothing more than a political gimmick. Carving out new provinces from the existing provinces would require approval from the two-third majority of the respective assemblies as well as a similar nod from parliament which looks like a distant possibility in view of the present ambience of political confrontation.

Even if by any chance the parties concerned agree to the proposition, the creation of new provinces, under the present system of governance and the existing mode of electing government representatives on the basis of single constituency, is not going to resolve the real issues which are advanced as arguments for the balkanisation of the existing provinces. It would only lead to the creation of more centres of power to the advantage of only a few. The elite class and feudal lords who belong to the areas concerned will end up becoming the new rulers.

People do not need more provinces on an administrative or ethno-linguistic basis. They want and need their problems to be resolved at the local level which can be done only through strengthening the local government as per the constitution. It is, therefore, incumbent upon the political parties to shun their traditional politics of manipulating the people and show honesty of purpose in resolving their problems through improved governance in consonance with the constitution.

As far as providing justice to the people at their door steps, or near their homes, is concerned, it can be done through setting up high court benches at every district headquarter and separating the judiciary from the administration in line with Article 175(3).

It is also imperative to break the hold of the elite class and feudal lords on the political power by changing the present system of electing our MNAs and MPAs. The best way to do so is to adopt the system of proportional representation for electing our parliamentarians. Under this system, people will vote for the parties rather than individual candidates in a single constituency, and the political parties will get representation in parliament on the basis of the percentage of votes that they poll.

The advantage of this system is that it reflects the people’s real support for the political parties and also ensures the presence of small and regional parties in parliament, making the assemblies a truly representative body.

This also helps parties avoid ‘electables’, and they can nominate competent and well-educated people from different walks of life to represent the party in parliament. The system also eliminates the possibility of rigging, horse-trading and floor-crossing for personal gains as well as political engineering. To make this system really workable, voting must be made compulsory so that every registered voter can exercise his/her right to vote.

If the political parties are really sincere about providing good governance to the people, they must cooperate with each other in introducing the required reforms in the existing system.

Prime Minister Imran Khan also needs to understand that, despite his honesty, he will not be able to implement his agenda of real change under the present system of governance. He might complete his tenure by listening to his coalition partners and keeping them in good stead to hold on to power. However, he will not be able to provide good governance to the people despite his best efforts unless constitutional arrangement for devolution of power is honestly implemented.

Whether he likes it or not, the PM would need the support of all political parties to change the existing system. The apex court as custodian of the constitution must also ensure that the next local body elections are held in conformity with Article 140 A.