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BARRING some unforeseen and unusual development, the elections to the national and provincial assemblies will be held on May 11. When the elections will be held to the local councils, or held at all, is not yet known. If the ministers and legislators had their way, perhaps, it would take a long time and if their wish finally prevails, as it has often in the past, they may never be held.
The provincial governments took their own time to constitute the election authorities under the present uniform law which does not bind them to any time frame.
However, their hands are now tied under the Eighteenth Amendment which has shifted the responsibility even for local government polls to the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP).
Article 140A inserted in the constitution by the amendment requires the provinces by law to “establish a local government system and devolve political, administrative and financial responsibility and authority to the elected representatives of the local government”.
Woefully even the Eighteenth Amendment doesn’t lay down a time frame for holding the local government elections nor links them with the schedule of elections to the provincial assemblies. This situation gives rise to the apprehension that the ministers and assembly members may drag their feet as long as they can. It remains doubtful whether the ECP would fix a date on its own as the provincial governments have to be fully involved in the selection of the polling staff and the law and order arrangements.
Ideally, the local elections should have immediately followed the national and provincial polls to make use of the infrastructure and the staff mobilised for the task. That option is no longer available but the ECP must hold them in as short a time as possible. If the gap is prolonged, events and, possibly, political manoeuvres could result in their cancellation.
The essential problem does not pertain to the absence of an appropriate law or physical arrangements but is one of attitudes. The ministers, legislators, bureaucrats, and their formations down the line, are averse to the institution of the city mayor, district chairman and even councillors as they tend to curtail their powers and preferences not just in developmental or civic management but also in the maintenance of law and order and executive authority in general by their interference.
Nevertheless, such influence and interference are equally working at the provincial and federal levels and must not be made an excuse for denying the councils their statutory role in civic affairs. The problem here is not legal but practical. The career officers also generally resent the presence of councillors for they take over some of their functions and on occasions even harass them.
But only the continuity of the local government system will correct the attitudes of the officials and councillors and both combined will be able to deliver the services much better to the community.
The conflict between the ministers and the councillors was most in view at Karachi during the decade of 2001-10 where the mayor of the city appeared more important in public life than all the ministers put together. The authority and limelight the two mayors — Naimatullah Khan and Mustafa Kamal — hogged, combined with the patronage and largesse they received directly from Islamabad, exacerbated political tensions in the province even though it was all to the material benefit of the citizens.
The urban-rural divide in Sindh, being largely ethnic, has repercussions more sinister than in the other provinces. This phenomenon calls for each province to have its own local government law and set-up which takes care of its political, geographical and ethnic complexities.
It is indeed an intolerable situation where a city mayor controls more money and finds greater prominence in public life than does the provincial cabinet. The federal government, then led by Gen Musharraf, only exacerbated the urban-rural animosity by having direct dealings with the mayors and through his personal patronage.
A uniform local government system, in any case, is a bad idea. The provinces should be free to have their own laws or adapt the present law to the ground realities without impairing the spirit of the scheme.
The elections, nevertheless, should be held at the earliest while the adjustments in the laws and institutions proceed apace. It is important to reinstate the local government institutions before they are once again abandoned at the altar of power politics.
Already the system has suffered a break long enough for it to appear as if the country has seen the last of it. The fact that the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM) in its manifesto is the keenest on continuing it and other parties are lukewarm (the PML-Q manifesto mentions it only in passing) heightens such apprehensions. It would be of interest to note here that the MQM is so committed to ‘devolution’ as to give to the federation in its manifesto no more than defence, foreign affairs and currency.
Even the Cabinet Mission scheme of 1946 which was a last-ditch attempt to preserve the sovereign identity of India was more generous in giving ‘communications’ to the centre in addition to those three. How that scheme, though accepted by the Muslim League, was sabotaged by the Congress, and partition became inevitable is another story that is best told by Maulana Abul Kalam Azad.
The writer is a former civil servant.