Local self-government

September 4, 2022

Strengthening the local government system requires a serious dialogue among various parties

Local self-government


f Pakistan wants an effective system of governance based on public interest, the first and foremost priority should be a strong system of independent and integrated local governments.

Many countries around the world are currently trying to make governance more effective through decentralisation of political, administrative and financial powers. In this framework, local governments are given priority in governance.

Important political stakeholders in Pakistan have been reluctant to learn from the best practices in the world or from our own mistakes of the past. Instead, we continue to repeat the same mistakes. There is also great resistance to the idea of decentralisation system, despite the 18th Amendment to the constitution which laid the foundation for a more decentralized governance system.

It must be acknowledged that there have been several attempts to reform the local government system. There was a concerted effort to take important powers away from the provincial governments and hand them over to local governments. The constitution was amended to ascertain that the local governments empowered at the cost of provincial governments enjoyed support from the federal government. However, the provincial governments have resisted and currently control most of the functions once sought to be delegated to the local tier.

Elections to the local government institution have not been held regularly. Even when the election have been forced on the Executive by the superior judiciary, the local government institutions have struggled to exercise legislative autonomy and control over funds. Several institutions created initially at local level have ended up under the control of provincial governments.

Unfortunately, the political class are not prepared to abandon traditional ideas of governance thinking or let go of control over resources to allow a meaningful restructuring of the local government system. No wonder, there is much dissatisfaction with and criticism of the governance throughout the country. The ruling elite might wish Pakistan well but its lack of commitment to an empowered system of local governments is huge roadblock. This amounts to distrust of and disassociation with the people at the grassroots level.

There is need for a serious dialogue in the context of the system of local government in Pakistan among various parties. Given that the system of governance currently suffers from extraordinary problems extraordinary remedies are needed. I propose that we have to agree on the following basic principles:

First, Article 140 of the constitution should be amended to introduce a provision that local governments will be required to hold local elections within 120 days of the expiry of their terms or its premature termination. If a provincial government fails to hold local elections within the stipulated time, it should be penalised by imposing a cut in resources made available to it under the finance commission award. The local government tier must be guaranteed sufficient resources to be controlled by it.

The political class are not prepared to abandon their traditional ideas of governance and control over resources to ensure a desirable restructuring of the local government system.

Second, the federal government must not abandon the local governments to the provincial governments although local government is a provincial subject. The Federation must ensure that local elections are held on time and the system is not paralyzed.

Third, to ensure continuity, coherence and accountability at the local government tier, the federation should monitor the provincial governments’ performance in enabling the formation of a provincial system under Articles 140, 7 and 32 of the constitution. If the performance is not satisfactory, the Federation should take suitable remedial action. The tenure of federal, provincial and local governments should be the same. It can be four or five years. Elections to the three tiers should be held simultaneously within 120 days of one another.

Fourth, provincial governments should not be allowed to deprive the local governments of their control over suitable resources and monopolise development budgets. The distribution of the development budget should in principle be linked to the system of local government.

Fifth, the local government system should have a clear formula for allocating resources from provinces to districts. Clear and transparent distribution of resources should be linked to population, geography and deprivation. The provincial government should be required to spend 30 percent of its development budget through the local governments.

Sixth, the country should have a clear policy on local government elections. All elections should be held directly, including elections to reserved seats. Elections should be held on party basis.

Seventh, women’s representation should be ensured through 33 percent direct election. Political parties should be required to issue at least 5 percent of general seats tickets to women.

Eighth, the provincial finance commissions should be strengthened and able to play an effective role in making the system accountable at the provincial level.

Ninth, provincial government must not form an alternative system in the province to replace or substitute elected local governments. They must not create any authority or company to control the local government functions.

Tenth, the system of big cities at the provincial level should be different from other cities. Governance of big cities required greater autonomy and empowerment.

Eleventh, the provincial governments should refrain from forming too many political and administrative structures. In principle, under the district council, there should be union councils and their chairpersons should members of the district council.

Twelfth, as many citizens as possible should be engaged in the system to ensure adequate participation of citizens in decision making.

Thirteenth, constituency boundaries should be permanent for at least ten years. Frequent demarcations attract the charge of gerrymandering.

Fourteenth, the administrative cadre in local governments should be determined and attached to the system permanently.

Fifteenth, the elected representatives of the people should be given more authority in the local governments than the civil servants. The police should be brought under the control of local governments or a community policing system should be introduced.

The writer is a political analyst and ED Institute for Democratic Education & Advocacy.

Local self-government