A fresh assessment of the local government system is the need of the hour
he local government system is directly linked to democracy, governance, accountability, transparency and access to justice. A fair distribution of resources is essential for social justice. A key to success is decentralisation of powers and devolution of maximum authority to the grassroots level to ensure that basic necessities, including service delivery mechanisms, are provided to the people. Fortunately, these things are enumerated categorically and guaranteed by the constitution and relevant laws. It is obligatory for the state and its institutions, including local governments, to perform their duties as envisaged in Articles 140-A and 32 of the constitution.
It is pertinent here to analyse the current situation as little to nothing practical has been done in this regard. Serious attention has not been paid to the matter by the state mechanisms and institutions. We have failed to make it our first and foremost priority, resulting in the absence of constitutional protection, discontinuity in local government system and a failure to devolve political, administrative and financial powers and authority. That is why local governments have not been successful in Pakistan for several decades resulting in a fragile relationship between a citizen and the state.
A democratic setup is incomplete without elected local governments. All Pakistan’s provinces lack democratic local governance systems. The situation is reflective of a sorry state of affairs and calls for immediate steps to restore effective and transparent local governments. It is the duty of all political parties to sit together and come up with a roadmap for setting up effective local governments. A fresh assessment of the archaic local government system is the need of the hour. Together the political parties should rethink its basic structure and framework and formulate a local government policy on modern foundations.
It is alarming to note that the provincial laws dealing with local governments are in contradiction with the constitutional provisions (Articles 140-A and 32). In light of the 18th Amendment to the constitution, the federal government has devolved the subject to the provinces. However, the provincial governments have not devolved enough powers to the local level. In terms of holding elections, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is in the lead, having completed the local government polls in two phases. In the other provinces, the process is under way.
In Sindh, major political parties, namely the Pakistan Peoples Party, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement and the Jamaat-i-Islami argued long over the proposed local government laws. The opposition parties contended that three kinds of powers had not been properly devolved to the urban local governments and had been withheld by the provincial cabinet or the chief minister. After lengthy discussions, they are on the same page now with written agreements drawn up recently. It is hoped that things will improve and that the people of Sindh will be able to have a better local government system.
In the present political scenario, what we are seeing is a demand to urgently hold general elections in Pakistan. Several political pundits are predicting general election during the current year, leaving no room for local government elections.
In the Punjab, the Local Government Act of 2015 was amended in 2021 by the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf government. In some ways the 2021 Ordinance is considered better. In the 2015 Act, a lot of the business was in the hands of service providing companies and autonomous authorities headed by the chief minister instead of local governments. Many of the companies and authorities have now been abolished. The remaining entities have been made subservient to the local governments. The 2021 Ordinance has created smaller local government units – community and village councils – that will be directly funded from the provincial exchequer. For the first time, mayors and deputy mayors will be directly elected. Election to seats reserved for peasants, labour, women, youth and minorities will also be by direct vote. General councillors will be inducted through proportional representation. Seats have also been reserved at the district level for the disabled and for traders.
A five-member forum named Mohallah Council in urban area and Panchayat Council in rural area has been introduced. Two of the members will be women. Their members will be nominated by community and village councils. Under the 2021 Ordinance, local governments will spend 30 percent of the development budget allocated by the provincial government.
The fall of the PTI-led coalition government in the Punjab has created uncertainty regarding the future of the 2021 Ordinance. It is not immediately clear whether the law will be further amended.
Provincial governments and their members, regardless of party affiliation, consider local governments ‘dangerous’. They continue to pose hurdles in the smooth functioning of the local government system. Bureaucracy is another obstacle to the smooth functioning of local governments. It always wants to keep maximum power, authority and decision making in its own hand.
This year we were hoping to have local government elections according to notified election schedules. However, some of the major political parties are now demanding general elections. Several political pundits are predicting general election during the current year, leaving no room for local government elections in three provinces. A postponement of local government polls will be deplorable in that it will continue to prevent public welfare through local governance structures.
The following ideas should be considered by all stakeholders to strengthen our local government systems:
One, the constitution should be amended to protect the local governments and provide a mechanism for fresh elections within 90 to 120 days upon dissolution of a local government. Two, elections to national assembly, provincial assemblies and local government institutions should be held simultaneously. Three, the federal government should ensure that local governments in each province function as per the provisions of the constitution. Four, political parties and the civil society should come up with a comprehensive roadmap to provide an effective strategy for localised governance and devolution of powers.
The writer is a political analyst and policy advisor. He is also the executive director of the Institute for Democratic Education & Advocacy (IDEA), and convener of the Inclusive Local Government Impact Consortium (iLOGIC)