Saturday April 20, 2024

Politics of decentralisation

By Foqia Sadiq Khan
February 20, 2022

A good thing about social science research is that one can have strong opinions about certain social realities and structures until new research comes up and makes people rethink their long-held views with its strong empirical evidence.

In this article, I am going to review the paper ‘Political Parties and Decentralization in Pakistan’ by Sameen Ali and Mariam Mufti, which made me rethink my position on decentralisation.

I used to believe that decentralisation is an important pillar of people-centred governance. What is remarkable about the above paper is that it analyses the lack of support for decentralisation from the perspective of mainstream political parties -- a perspective which was missing from earlier.

A lot has been written on the functional and normative aspects of decentralisation; yet not much effort was made to learn why mainstream political parties resist it.

It is well established even in the previous literature that authoritarian governments in Pakistan have devolved powers at the local level to bypass established politicians and earn legitimacy at the local level. By contrast, whenever any mainstream political party comes to power, it is not in favour of devolution to the local level.

The authors of the paper contend that in patronage-based politics where the control of government funds and the redressal of service delivery concerns of constituents is the main function of politicians, devolution to the local level can lead to defection and even party fragmentation.

National- and provincial-level politicians want to control local politics to strengthen patronage-based democracy. Connections with higher-level politicians and party leadership are crucial. The authors found out that when higher-level politicians switch sides and join a different mainstream party, local leaders also follow suit.

This is due to a candidate-centred political system in Pakistan where mainstream parties rely on ‘electables’ who often do not depend on party funds for their electoral success, but they want to be part of a political party for their career advancement and access to government funds and machinery.

In such a scenario, if the administrative and fiscal powers are truly devolved to the local level, it may lead to the inbreeding of new regional leadership and excessive competition that could lead to defection and even party fragmentation. Therefore, to keep a lid on party hierarchies, leaders of mainstream parties agreed to devolve power to the provincial level in the 18th Amendment as it was the key demand of smaller parties, but they have not made progress to meaningfully devolve to the local level to date.

The mainstream parties got the support of the parties from smaller provinces for the provisions of the 18th Amendment that strengthened democracy and their position vis-a-vis some authoritarian forces in the country. So, it was a bargain, but it stopped short of meaningful devolution to the local level and only instituted devolution to the provinces. Even though devolution to the local level is part of the constitution even as the 18th amendment was passed, it was not institutionalised by political parties in a significant way.

Ali and Mufti contend that lack of support among the mainstream political parties of the PTI, PPP, and PML-N is “ embedded in the incentive structures of individual politicians at the national, provincial and local levels of government, specifically the structure of the federation, political career advancement and re-election, the country’s political history of repeated military interventions and experiments with local government and its fiscal position, and inter- and intra-party dynamics.”

The calculus about the re-election prospects of national- and provincial-level politicians that hinge on the distribution of the patronage at the local level makes them resist devolution as it would wrench away the local political control away from them.

Another interesting critique of decentralisation offered in the paper is that it links it to the neoliberal economic framework being pushed by international financial institutions. This neoliberal framework emphasises on limiting the role of the state (the central state) and advocating for devolution of power. Mainstream parties in Pakistan want to centralise power at the federal or provincial levels. This is due to weak party structures, lack of investment in the local-level party organisation and past authoritarian interventions.

Devolution to the provincial level is strategic in the sense that even if mainstream parties lose elections to form their government at the centre, they can still form their government in a provincial stronghold – like the PPP has done in Sindh. However, devolution beyond the provincial tier is not strategically beneficial to mainstream parties, hence the resistance.

Now, the local bodies elections are being held in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), and they are also going to be rolled out soon in Punjab. It would be interesting to see how mainstream parties try to reconcile with the devolution of power to the local level. Political commentators and social scientists are keen to closely watch the local bodies elections and the subsequent devolution of power due to the court orders.

The paper reviewed in this article is an important contribution to the literature as it offers a credible explanation behind the causes that make mainstream political parties resist devolution to the local level.

It goes to the credit of Mariam Mufti and her co-authors and collaborators that they are investigating political developments and structures in Pakistan from the point of view of political parties – a perspective that is often missing in the established literature.

The writer is an Islamabad-based social scientist. She can be reached at: