A major obstacle to achieving an effective local government system in Pakistan is its centralised governance model
Many of the challenges in Pakistani politics, democracy and governance will only be resolved through functioning local government systems. Article 140 A of the constitution reads: “Each province shall, by law, establish a local government system and devolve political, administrative and financial responsibility and authority to the elected representative of the local governments.”
The people of Pakistan, like any other people, deserve true democracy. The gateway to the necessary transition is the provision of a third tier of government (besides the provincial and federal structures). The constitution makes it obligatory for the establishment to ensure that a devolution plan providing fundamental human rights enumerated from Articles 8 to 28 is in place.
One of the major obstacles to achieving this in Pakistan is the country’s centralised governance model. It is especially disappointing after the enactment of the 18th Amendment that no time limit has been laid down for fresh elections after the completion of a local government turn or its dissolution. The dream of continuity in local governments can only be realised by the insertion of such a provision.
Provincial governments and many members of parliament feel insecure in the presence of local governments. They are not ready to share their administrative and financial powers. An out-of-box solution is required therefore rather than trying to make the conventional framework work.
One can learn from developed countries and follow their lead to progress and prosperity. Vested interests have, however, opposed this and insisted on new experiments in repeating the same old mistakes. The problem is not unique to any one political party. Each and every political party in Pakistan that has led a provincial government has been guilty of this. Provincial governments have always endeavoured to formulate local government laws and rules in such a way that they violate the injunctions of the constitution. This is why all these laws have failed to deliver sustainable local government institutions.
In Sindh, the Local Government Act of 2013 has been amended recently to transfer several powers from local governments to the provincial government. This has united almost all political parties in the province against the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party which has been politically isolated. All other stakeholders are agitating against the amendments which they are calling unconstitutional.
An ordinance outlining a modified local government system has also been promulgated by the governor in the Punjab. This has been followed by the submission of a bill to the provincial assembly secretariat that is now under consideration before a standing committee. The bill has the following salient features:
n Elections for mayor and deputy mayor, as well as reserved seats for women, minorities, peasants, labour and youth, will be contested by panels in direct vote.
n The local government shall now control five departments previously administered by the provincial government. These are primary education, health, population, social welfare and sports.
n Development authorities, parks and horticulture, parking companies, TEPAs, waste management companies and water and sanitation agencies will be devolved to metropolitan corporations.
n Elections will be on party basis as ordered by the Supreme Court. Internal mode of election for all upper tiers is direct and party-based, 60 percent on the basis of panel head, deputy head and councillors on reserved seats, 40 percent on the basis of closed-list proportional representation (general councillors) on one ballot paper.
n The number of neighbourhood councils is 2,171 and village councils 3,433. There will be 11 metropolitan corporations and 10 district councils in the rural area of the metropolitan districts other than Lahore. There will be 25 district councils in the non-metropolitan districts.
n A head’s cabinet of a local government, except neighbourhood council and village council, has been introduced comprising councillors and technocrat members. Technocrat members shall hold a degree requiring sixteen years of education and five years of professional experience.
n Neighbourhood and village councils shall receive 30 percent of development funds directly from the provincial government.
n A five-member community council/ panchayat council (having no less than two women members) will be nominated under every NC and VC.
n A quota has been set aside in district councils for disabled persons.
The provincial government will still enjoy significant control through its bureaucracy. It has been decided that local government election in the Punjab will be held using electronic voting machines. This can lead to a delay and some people suspect the provision to have been made for the very purpose.
The local governments’ term in the Punjab has come to an end. In the absence of a law and elected local government representatives, the business will return into the hands of the chief minister who shall deal with it through nominated administrators.
The academic qualification requirement for running mayor and deputy mayor has led to a controversy considering there no such restriction for members of parliament.
The enactment of the law and the issuance of an election schedule have come about under the orders of the superior courts, the Election Commission of Pakistan and an increasing pressure from the civil society. The lack of commitment by political powers and the high-handedness of the civil bureaucracy continue to threaten the prospects of the local governments of the future.
A suggestion has been made to have a framework at the federal level to ensure success of the local government tier. It has been argued that while it is a provincial matter, the federal government need not close its eyes and should ensure monitoring, evaluation and continuation of the local government systems. However, this raises the likelihood of clashes between provincial and local government institutions, when a party assumes powers in a local government and a rival party in the provincial government. Another proposal is to hold general and local government elections together or local government election soon after the general election, not more than 120 days later. This will require that all tiers of government have the same tenure.
The need of the hour is to have a clear vision of the local government system in our political discourse.
The writer is a political analyst and policy advisor. He is also the convener of Inclusive Local Government Impact Consortium (iLOGIC)