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Inexplicable delay: Local government polls

July 19, 2013

IT is sad fact that in Pakistan, elected governments have usually dillydallied on the question of holding local government elections. On the other hand, authoritarian regimes have often facilitated this essential democratic exercise. There is little to indicate this trend is changing as the judiciary seems more interested in ensuring the holding of local body polls than the provincial governments. On Thursday, the Supreme Court ordered the provinces to submit dates by July 22 for holding LG polls, reiterating its earlier instructions that the elections should be held by September. Various problems related to service delivery in health, sanitation and other sectors have arisen due to the absence of elected local governments countrywide. If democracy is to be devolved to the third tier, it is essential that citizens elect their own local representatives.

The main problem seems to be the absence of workable legislation at the provincial level to allow the holding of LG elections and a functional, responsive system to be run under such laws thereafter. In KP the previous ANP government revived the Zia-era LG law in its last days, though the present PTI-led government reportedly wants to pass new legislation in order to introduce its own LG system. Balochistan passed an LG law in 2010 restoring the commissionerate system, but the law needs to be overhauled. Political expediency has hampered the passage of an effective LG law in Sindh as the MQM and PPP have sparred over which system is best for the province; an updated version of the Musharraf-era law, or the 1979 system. Politicking can also be seen at work in Punjab, where a new LG law is sitting in the assembly. Apparently, the N-League is wary about possible gains the PTI could make at the local level.

Regardless of the fears holding back the parties from passing the requisite legislation, it must be realised that elected local governments are a constitutional requirement. If lawmakers feel the Musharraf-era legislation gave excessive powers to the third tier, they should make the necessary amendments. However, the workable elements of the previous system should not be jettisoned. Moreover, when the new systems are in place, they must be allowed to work and not overturned every time a disagreement with a political ally crops up or a new party takes the helm. This political seesawing can be disastrous for governance. Each province must decide which system it wants, pass or amend the relevant laws and set a date for polls without further procrastination.