Local elections: a recount

Devolution of powers is the key to developing democracy at the grassroots level

Local elections: a recount


he postponement of the second phase of the local government elections in Sindh has once again triggered the debate about the future of local governments in the province. It has also raised the question of the provincial government’s will to strengthen the local government system (LGS) and to extend democracy to the grassroots level. It has been alleged that the elections are delayed on the demand of the provincial ministers and the members of the provincial assembly who are reluctant to hand over development funds to a local government setup. Instead, they want to hold these funds to build their personalised networks of patronage. Another reason can be the fear of a PPP defeat at the hands of the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI), mainly in Karachi.

Devolution of powers through the LGS is believed to be the key to developing democracy at the grassroots level and improving and assuring the efficiency and quality of public service. However, the objective can only be achieved if some pre-conditions – conducive to local government or devolution of power – such as a strong and efficient Centre, a well-developed civil society, and highly organised political forces are prevalent.

The LGS largely failed in Pakistan due to the absence of these pre-conditions and some other reasons, such as the devolution of power. It was aimed at serving the predatory interests of military dictators — i.e., to strengthen their power to establish centralised government structures and to co-opt newly emerging politicians from local councils who could act as conduits between local constituencies and military established governments. Subsequently, the local politicians so emerged preferred establishing and strengthening links with the central government rather than consolidating their position in their constituencies. Due to this reason, we see military regimes more interested in launching local governments than the civil governments.

The following passages make an attempt at exploring and analysing the history of local governments in Pakistan in general, and in Sindh in particular, its salient features, and the reasons for its failure during both military and civil governments.

The history of LGS in present day Pakistan dates back to the Indus Valley civilisation, where the Aryans introduced it in the second millennium BC for the first time. Under this system, public affairs were regulated and governed through a panchayat whose responsibilities ranged from development to welfare and from administrative to judicial. The Muslim rulers, from the Arabs to the Mughals, carried on with this legacy without making any significant changes to it.

Unlike them, the British reformed the entire system of agricultural production and power structure at the village level by introducing ‘feudalism from below’ through the Permanent Settlement Act. Despite these changes, the local councils were dominated by bureaucracy rather than a new rural elite, which was given limited representation. Contrary to village councils, the urban councils were structured largely to deliver municipal services in urban areas. Thus, a rural-urban divide was created.

The nascent Pakistani state, dominated by civil bureaucracy, persisted with the local government model established by the British, primarily due to the prevalence of the middle class, which had served the British administration. They got exposure to metropolitan culture and ideologies, and eventually, led the nationalist movement for independence. However, the military dominated state, in the late 1950s, went for major experiments in devolving power to co-opt local elites to further its agenda.

The first large-scale LGS was introduced by Gen Ayub Khan through the Basic Democracies Ordinance of 1959 and the Municipal Administration Ordinance of 1960. The members of the union councils, the lowest tier, were elected through adult franchise, which in turn, used to elect chairmen from amongst themselves. Also, these members used to elect some of the members of higher tiers, while others were nominated by the government. Overall, basic democracies were controlled by the bureaucrats e.g., deputy commissioners and commissioners were chiefs at the district and the division level, respectively.

The LGS did not get much attention during the short elected government of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. After toppling Bhutto’s government, Gen Zia ul Haq revived and reformed the LGS through the Local Government Ordinance of 1979, which remained operational until 2000.

Both the generals, Ayub and Zia, introduced the LGS in the absence of national and provincial governments and held partyless elections; aimed their systems at creating a new class of politicians to legitimise their military rule and to serve their interests; avoided providing any constitutional protection to their LGS; carried the colonial policy of the urban-rural divide where Ayub patronised the rural councils while Zia privileged the urban councils. Their preference for non-party elections had a long-lasting impact on Pakistani politics e.g., the politics of clans and castes emerged at the cost of politics of ideologies and issues. This resulted in strengthening the politics of patronage and creating conflicts between various tiers of governance, as provincial politicians started considering local councils’ representatives as their competitors with regards to development funds.

Gen Pervez Musharraf’s LGS, which he introduced through the Local Government Ordinance of 2001, differs with the systems of his predecessors on various accounts. It 1) created a system of government at the district level and politically linked it to local governments at the sub-district levels; 2) attempted to overcome the urban-rural divide; 3) empowered the voters to directly elect union nazims (mayors) and naib nazims (deputy mayors) who became members of the district and tehsil councils, respectively; 4) removed the previously existing hierarchical relationship between the local and provincial governments; 5) devolved administrative, financial and development powers to elected officials in the local councils; and 6) gave short-term constitutional protection to the local government till 2009 through a presidential order.

After the order’s expiry in 2009, and the enactment of the 18th Constitutional Amendment in 2010, the provincial assembly of Sindh passed its Local Government Act in 2013.

The Act provides limited autonomy to local councils concerning fiscal management, service delivery, revenue, tax, and police. It subordinates the local government to the provincial government in numerous ways e.g., the chief minister can dismiss a local government or head of the council and appoint officeholder after the dismissal of the council leader. Though this Act, unlike the LGS of the military dictators, opts for party-based elections it does not favour ‘democratic ethos’, which is at the very heart of the idea of local government.

Under this Act, the provincial government of Sindh has conducted local government elections in 2015 and the first phase of the 2022 elections. It is now using various tactics to delay the second phase of the elections. The reluctance is probably because provincial ministers and members of the provincial assembly want to keep development funds in their hands to build personalised networks of patronage. This situation is generally attributed to recurrent and long periods of military rule that systematically weakened political parties and democratic political culture that could bring any meaningful change. However, a similar weakening of the LGS through non-serious, undemocratic and corrupt elected governments cannot be ruled out.

Mazhar Abbas has a PhD in history from Shanghai University and is a lecturer at GCU, Faisalabad. He can be contacted at mazharabbasgondal87@gmail.com. He tweets at @MazharGondal87. 

Bilal Hassan can be reached at bilalhassanat@gmail.com

Local elections: a recount