The Local Government Acts for each province, in their current form, provide limited autonomy to local councils, concerning fiscal management and control over service delivery, revenue, and tax and police departments etc.
While all the Local Government Acts promulgated so far have facilitated devolving some service delivery functions to local governments, provinces still retained control of large entities like the Karachi Water and Sewerage Board, Sindh Building Control Authority, Lahore Development Authority (LDA), and Solid Waste Management (SWM). They also had administrative control of education and health service delivery.
The previous Local Government Acts of all four provinces subordinated the local governments to the provincial governments in numerous ways. For example, they allowed provincial chief ministers to dismiss a local government or the head of the council and appoint officeholders after the dismissal of council leaders
Unlike the Local Government Acts introduced by the military regimes in Pakistan, local government laws introduced by civilian governments in different provinces opted for party-based elections for the formation of local governments. These laws were excessively deferential to provincial governments and limited in their scope in providing any meaningful ‘democratic ethos’ which is at the heart of the idea of local government as the foundation of grassroots democracy.
The military regimes used local government systems as instruments to promote politicians who were loyal to their rule. Local governments were effectively used for this purpose and promoted politics of patronage. Power and patronage being zero-sum games, any real authority exercised by local governments could only come at the cost of its political use by provincial and federal governments directly or indirectly controlled by the military even during the civilian rule.
A new coalition government led by the PTI took power in Pakistan in August 2018 under the leadership of Imran Khan. It was widely believed that Pakistan’s powerful quarters helped Khan rise to power. Soon after assuming power, and in keeping with the tradition of military governments, Khan dismantled the local government structures in the provinces controlled by his party and introduced a new system.
In Punjab, the Local Government Act of 2019 codified the new system. Other provinces have not yet introduced the new Local Government Acts. The 2019 Act dissolved the existing local government institutions and gave the Punjab government until April 2020 to hold elections for the constitution of new local governments. It reintroduced the rural-urban distinction and prescribed the establishment of metropolitan/ municipal/town corporations/ committees for urban areas and tehsil councils for rural areas.
In a clear departure from earlier local government regimes, the head of each local government will be directly elected by the people. The head will have a cabinet to assist him/her in the discharge of functions (an extensive list including education, but excluding healthcare, provided in Schedules 3, 4 and 5) by a set of councillors and professionals as specified in the Fourth Schedule to the Act.
In another significant departure from the past, the councillors will be elected on a closed list proportional representation basis. Thus, elections will be held on a political party basis, and each party will provide a list of its candidates in order.
Depending upon the percentage of votes a party obtains in a local government, its nominees will become councillors for the local governments concerned. In other words, each local government will comprise a multi-candidate constituency. Another unique feature of the new system is the establishment of ‘panchayat’ and neighbourhood councils for rural and urban areas respectively. These are envisaged as grassroots forums to ensure democratic participation at the village and ward levels.
These forums do not have any inherent power or function under the Act, but they can be assigned/delegated any function by a local government forum. In other words, there will be institutions which can be used if the metropolitan/municipal corporation or a tehsil council intends to do so. Whether the higher forums will be ready to delegate any of their powers and functions will depend upon the pressure grassroots forums can exert.
So far only the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) government has implemented a two-tiered local governance model as its devolution plan. But this two-tiered governance model of tehsil and village councils inherits all those flaws discussed here. The history of devolution in Pakistan, however, does not provide much ground for optimism. As the previous experience since the 1950s has shown, each governance tier wants the higher tier to delegate authority but is reluctant to delegate the same to lower tiers.
The history of decentralization in Pakistan reveals that the central tendency in major experiments with local governments primarily conducted by non-representative military regimes was to establish the most coercive central state through decentralization to further accumulate power.
The civilian governments, on the other hand, were reluctant to establish strong local governments because provincial ministers and members of provincial parliaments wanted to keep development funds in their hands to build their networks of patronage. Such a situation existed perhaps because of the continuous and long periods of military rule that systematically weakened political parties and democratic political culture that could bring any meaningful change.
Such a state of affairs represents a significant paradox as, excluding a few exceptions, the purpose of decentralization was further centralization of power. The legitimacy of military regimes was established by creating localized patronage structures through local governments that produced a class of ‘collaborative politicians’ who acted as conduits between local-level constituencies and the non-representative centre.
The non-party basis of elections for local governments strengthened the politics of patronage and structurally destroyed the prospects of democratic governments accountable to the people. The practice has been similar to the British colonial period. Before the colonial period, however, the part of the Indian subcontinent that later became Pakistan had a strong tradition of locally governed self-sufficient village communities.
What’s next then? Pakistan needs a complete restructuring of its political system by allowing democracy to flourish through constitutional protection to uninterrupted civilian rule. The civilian governments and leaderships of all mainstream political parties have to rise to the occasion to enter into a broad-based consensus to strengthen democracy.
A stable and strong democracy and an empowered political leadership will gain confidence to introduce meaningful local governance reforms.
To be continued..
The writer is a social development and policy adviser, and a freelance columnist based in Islamabad. He tweets @AmirHussain76 and can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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