A history of decentralisation

Political parties never wanted to transfer power to local governments, while the military regimes used them as an alternative to political parties

History tells us that the major political parties never wanted to transfer power to local governments, while the military regimes tried to use these governments as an alternative to the mainstream political parties. Overtime, military governments took some bold steps for local body governments. However, the changes brought about by political parties showed that they never intended to empower local governments and intended instead to use them as a tool to widen their influence at the grassroots level.

Pakistan inherited the colonial model of local governments. Its first major experiment with local governments was under the martial law regime of Gen Ayub Khan. The martial law set back representative politics at the central and provincial level by disbanding national and provincial assemblies. The military ruler tried to make the local governments the only representative tier of the government in order to diminish the role of elected representatives at the provincial and national level.

The next major experiment with local governments was during the military dictatorship of Gen Ziaul Haq. Yet another one came during the military rule of Gen Pervez Musharraf. In its manifesto, the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf, promised revolutionary changes in the local government system and transfer of power to the local level. However, no significant steps have been taken in that direction so far.

Ayub Khan introduced the Basic Democracies Ordinance 1959 to establish the local governments as the only representative tier of the government. Later, he introduced the Municipal Administration Ordinance 1960, which was based on a hierarchical system of four linked tiers. After Ziaul Haq ousted Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in 1977, he revived the local governments and brought changes in the system. He introduced the Local Government Ordinance 1979 that remained operational until 2000. Local governments were introduced in the absence of national and provincial governments under the direct control of the military ruler. The elections were party-less and aimed at creating a new political class that would sideline and replace the ousted ruling elite. It did create a new class of politicians, of whom some would later graduate to provincial and federal level. However, no efforts were made to empower local governments by providing them with constitutional protection.

Gen Musharraf, in 2001, introduced a new local government system through Local Government Ordinance (LGO). Under his devolution plan, district heads of the new local government system were given more powers and autonomy. After the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, the subject was handed over to the provinces. Different provinces then opted for different structures for their local governments. However, no major powers were transferred to the local tier. The local governments still lack financial and administrative autonomy and the powers remain within the provincial governments.

“The history of decentralisation in Pakistan reveals that the central tendency underlying major experiments with local governments conducted by non-representative military regimes was to establish the most coercive central state through decentralisation 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 assemblies wanted to keep development funds in their hands to build their networks of personalised patronage,” concludes a recent study by political scientists Nadeem Malik and Ahsan Rana (The History of Local Governance in Pakistan: What Lessons to Learn?).

The military regimes aimed at promoting politicians loyal to the military by using local governments for this purpose while political regimes did not transfer power to this tier.

Some critics say that the party-less elections were meant to create a new political base but without the right to political association that benefited military dictators. Inder elected governments, members of the Provincial Assemblies (MPAs) wanted to keep development planning and funds in their hands. The local polls in the Punjab in 2017 were the first party-based local elections in its history. Since 2001, it seems that a political class has emerged with stakes in this system and wants to take it forward. It was this class of stakeholders that moved the Supreme Court against the 2019 dissolution of local governments in Pakistan.


The writer is a staff reporter. He can be reached at [email protected]

A history of decentralisation