evolution of powers to a local governments system has a unique importance in addressing everyday issues faced by the citizens. Empowered local governments are better able to make decisions that reflect the needs and aspirations of the citizens. It is also easier for the electorate to hold their representatives accountable at the union council level. Local autonomy is a highly valued feature of governance. Realising its importance, many countries across the world continue to make efforts to strengthen the local governments. Decentralisation of powers and decision making and reinforcing the strengths, competencies and capacity at the lowest level are key in this regard.
Such efforts are even more important in the context of Pakistan where large segments of the citizenry remain marginalised on account of authoritarian patronage mechanisms. Building sustainable local government systems is a step towards making governments more responsive, efficient, inclusive, transparent and accountable to citizens. Public service delivery can then improve through enhancement of citizens’ participation in governance. Local governments are crucial to fulfilling the promise of democracy.
Local governments perform two major functions. First, they serve the administrative purpose of delivering public services and goods at the grassroots level. Second, they better represent the citizens who aren’t as engaged with their elected representatives at the provincial and national levels. An effective local government system can bring ‘government’ closer to the people, increase accountability and help combat corruption.
Unfortunately, provincial governments have not shown the required commitment to empowering ad strengthening the local governments. There have been many challenges with respect to creating empowered local governments. The passage of 18th amendment to the constitution in 2010 was widely seen as a great breakthrough as significant powers were taken away from the federal government and devolved to the provincial level. The legislation was lauded as a necessary step to overcome the tendency for excessive centralisation. The amendment also provided for local governments within the provinces to take ‘government’ closer to the people. However, the amendment did not specify a framework or a time frame for this.
Article 140-A of the constitution says that “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.” The responsibility for holding local government elections was assigned to the Election Commission of Pakistan.
Provincial governments have not shown the required commitment to empowering ad strengthening the local governments.
The Balochistan province enacted a local government law in less than a month after the 18th Amendment. However, the other three provinces took considerably longer - almost three years. The delay was blamed mostly on the political elite, who were seen dragging their feet until they were specifically ordered by the Supreme Court to complete the job.
In Balochistan, local governments completed their term in January 2019. However, fresh elections to replace the councils were not held until May 2022. Elections have yet to be held in Quetta and Lasbela districts and elections for reserved seats are in progress.
In the Punjab, local governments were prematurely dissolved on the pretext of introducing an improved and more effective legislation. When the Supreme Court of Pakistan restored the local governments in the province, they were not allowed to exercise their powers. In December 2021, their term lapsed.
The Punjab has seen several experiments with the local government system over the past decades. As many as five laws have been introduced since the repeal of the Punjab Local Governments Act, 2013. The latest law, The Punjab Local Government Act, 2022, was notified on November 16. Under this law, the provincial government has retained excessive powers and granted limited autonomy to local governments.
In Sindh, the local governments completed their term in August 2020. Elections have already been in some districts (in June 2022). However, the second phase of the polls has been postponed thrice. The first postponement was owing to excessive rain, the second due to floods and the third due to lack of capacity in administrative and police personnel. It has been suggested by its critics that the Sindh government is reluctant to hold local elections as this can help a new political leadership emerge in the province.
In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the local government completed their term in August 2019. Elections for their successive bodies were held in April 2022. However, presiding officers of councils have yet to be elected. Hence local governments in the KP, too, are not fully functional. An amendment introduced in the relevant law in June has curtailed the powers of local government institutions.
In the federal capital, local government elections have been scheduled for December 31, almost a year after the previous councils completed their term in February 2021.
The delays and the obstructions caused in the holding of local government elections show that the ruling parties are reluctant to hold local government elections. To this end, an array of excuses are invented. Section 219 (4) of the Election Act, 2017 requires holding the local government elections within 120 days of the completion of the previous body’s term. Sadly, the ECP, provincial governments and the federal government have failed to fulfil the obligation. The delay is a clear violation of the law.
The Centre for Peace and Development Initiatives and other some civil society organisations have been pressing the relevant political stakeholders to hold local government elections and transfer administrative and financial powers to them without further delay.
In recent provincial conferences in Karachi and Quetta, organised by the CPDI, several experts and political leaders demanded a separate chapter for local government in the constitution to clearly mention the functions and authority of local governments and provides for a provincial finance commission.
The writers are associated with the CPDI. They tweet @TheRazaAliS and @JanjuaMuazam