Power at grassroots

February 14, 2021

Three years have passed without local government elections

The local government elections that are a constitutional obligation under Article 140 A have not been held as yet even though the sitting government has entered its third year. It is binding on the provincial governments to hold these elections with the support of the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) but so far these have not been held anywhere in the province.

Prime Minister Imran Khan has been a strong proponent of the local government system and often boasts of running it exceedingly well in KP when his party was heading the province from 2013 to 2018. It was during this time that the local governments in the province got 30 percent of the development budget of the province and allowed to use it independently. Reportedly, members of the opposition parties too had access to these funds.

While local governments in other provinces completed their terms; in the Punjab, these were dissolved prematurely by scrapping the law under which these were formed. This action by the government was challenged in the court. At the moment, out of the four provinces (the Punjab, Sindh, Balochistan and the KP), Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK), Gilgit -Baltistan and Islamabad Capital Territory (ICT) a local government is only working in the ICT where it was restored under a court order.

So, the question here is: What will be the fate of the local governments, which are the first point of contact for the people at grassroots level?

It is this tier of state that caters to people’s basic issues like provision of drinking water and sanitation facilities, cleanliness, municipal services, provision of street lights, registration of births and deaths, overseeing immunisation drives and local development etc. The general perception is that the local governments have not been allowed to flourish because the upper tiers of government do not want to let go of the power and control on development funds. Ideally, their task is legislation, but they eye development funds that they can spend in their constituencies.

A recent development in this context is that the Supreme Court of Pakistan has taken notice of the delay in holding local government elections and called it a sheer violation of a basic democratic right of the people. It has reprimanded the PTI government and inquired as to why it dissolved the local governments in the province without letting them complete their tenure. The SCP has also demanded schedule of local government elections in the KP and the Punjab where preparations have been completed. Sindh and Balochistan want results of the 2017 Census to be certified before an electoral exercise is initiated. The SCP has also inquired as to why the census issue has yet to be settled more than three years later.

A recent research paper by the Democracy Reporting International (DRI) - a German non-profit working on rights, governance and decentralisation, looks at the reasons for the lack of sustainability of local governments in the provinces. It highlights that historically democratic governments have ignored this tier of government. Even the last local government elections were held on the instructions of the SCP.

The research paper states: “Ironically, local governments have always been promoted in times of martial law, and opposed by political parties. Autocrats in Pakistan (Generals Ayub Khan 1958-1968, Muhammad Zia-ul- Haq 1977-1988 and Pervez Musharraf 1999-2007) all held local elections, seeking political legitimacy at the local level for the continuance of their military rule.”

It adds that democratic governments, on the other hand, apparently feared that local governments would weaken their control, and frequently avoided holding local elections. “In 1993, during her election campaign, Benazir Bhutto said on national media that people in villages were living without any government. She was absolutely correct but she too failed to deliver local government reforms or elections.”

Javed Malik, the executive director of DRI, observes that the local government laws developed by the PTI in the Punjab and the KP are “effective and superior laws” but the issue is that these are “not being implemented” apparently due to “lack of will”. He says the laws in Sindh and Balochistan are “on the pattern of the laws introduced in 1979 during the Zia regime when the bureaucracy was given immense powers”.

Malik says the provincial governments “must not fear losing and realise that this constitutional obligation is to be met at any cost”. He says the Punjab has agreed to hold elections around August. It is possible that the SCP asks it to do so earlier. The KP has also expressed its intention in this regard and wants a couple of conditions to be met.

Salman Abid, the executive director of Institute for Democratic Education and Advocacy (IDEA)  says all the four provincial governments must revisit their laws and agree on some common grounds that make these effective, inclusive, independent, representative and reflective of the best practices adopted by countries with good local government systems.

He says Pakistan needs “a decentralised system where each district/tehsil gets its due share in funds from the province the way provinces receive their share from the federal government”. Secondly, he adds, it is “more important to have powerful local governments than cosmetic ones which are hardly able to serve the people”. People can recall that the local governments in the Punjab protested against non-provision of funds and helplessness against their own PML-N government in the Punjab. He says that “holding elections on the orders of the SCP is good but the governments must not always wait for such intervention. They should act on their own”.

Abid insists that the “vulnerable and the marginalised groups like women, peasants, labourers, among others, must have a representation in local governments according to the Article 32 of the Constitution of Pakistan”.

The Article states: “The State shall encourage local Government institutions composed of elected representatives of the areas concerned and in such institutions special representation will be given to peasants, workers and women.”

Muhammad Basharat Raja, the Punjab minister for law and parliamentary affairs, tells The News on Sunday (TNS) that they are “ready for elections and their only excuse for delay was Covid”. He says that the elections will be “held in three phases which is also a recommendation of the ECP”. He says that the government has been “open to amendments with the aim of improving the law and have incorporated those received from various quarters, including the civil society, into it”.

The author is a staffer and can be contacted at [email protected]

Power at grassroots: Three years have passed without local government elections