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The reluctant democrats

November 06, 2013

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THE Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) is cracking under pressure; the scale of the task of organising local government elections is colossal.

In the 2005 local government elections, there were a quarter of a million candidates in over 6,000 union councils across the country. The ECP estimates that for the coming elections it needs to get 500 million ballot papers printed and outsource the production of 4.4 million magnetised inkpads, in addition to setting up the election administration machinery.

The Supreme Court wants local government elections held before the end of the year; the ECP is likely to miss the deadline or mess up the election process.

But this is probably a lesser cause for worry: the spirit underlying the local government system has already been murdered in the four provincial assemblies. The latter waged a war for decades to force the centre to shun its obsession with controlling everything and devolve power. The fruit of this effort was the passage of the 18th Amendment in 2010. But the local government laws passed by the four assemblies are proving to be a sorry anti-climax to their heroic struggle.

They may not be deficient in themselves, but the provincial laws seem to be at cross-purposes with the spirit of local government, and, in fact, appear to be undermining the very system they want to institute.

The provinces’ aversion to the local government system has a history. The system has served as the main ploy of centrists and military rulers who wanted to wrest power from the provincial assemblies. They used it to sideline provincial polities and to legitimise their rules by accessing the masses through a more manageable route. In this scheme of governance power flowed from the centre through two parallel channels — the provincial governments and the local governments, thus giving rise to rivalry between these entities.

Military rulers Ayub, Zia and Musharraf had unlimited power to change the laws and were able to design local government systems according to their own will. For the first time, the democratic provincial governments enjoy the same powers as these military rulers, and yet the systems they have designed for themselves sadly reflect the intentions of the generals. The aim is to keep power concentrated in the hands of the four ‘Islamabads’.

Each provincial government has certain weaknesses. The PPP government in Sindh refuses to accept that it is virtually non-existent in its capital city, Karachi. The PML-N in Punjab does not want to unsettle the traditional clan, family and sect alignments on which its power rests. The Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is, on the one hand, burdened with proving that it hasn’t already failed and, on the other, it can’t afford to let a clear verdict emerge at the grass-roots level. Their local government laws are shoddy attempts at translating their respective political expediencies into systems of governance.

Some anxieties, however, cut cross provincial boundaries. No political party can boast of even a semblance of a structure at the village and mohalla levels. At the time of general elections, they rely on village-level freelancing political brokers who offer allegiance to the highest bidder. The parties are clearly not in favour of abandoning this system of patronage. Punjab is unequivocally opposed to party-based elections while KP wants to introduce parties at a stage when the risk of its move backfiring is minimal.

The local government laws make no bones about their fondness for indirectly elected members which will include a substantial number of members and office bearers, especially those on reserved seats.

In the previous two local government elections, all members on such seats were directly elected, implying that there are no practical difficulties involved in the matter. The new design, however, is trying to counter the dangers that elected members might pose by ensuring the presence of a substantial number of indirectly elected or nominated members.

To add insult to injury, this careful mix of directly and indirectly elected members will hardly have any powers. For example, Punjab’s law provides for a Local Government Commission comprising three members of the provincial assembly and lots of bureaucrats acting as super nannies.

The commission will have the power to inspect the functioning of local governments and launch inquiries, as well as the responsibility of organising coordination meetings between MPAs, MNAs and functionaries of the local government on matters concerning development schemes. The decisions of the commission shall be binding and it will have the power to ask the provincial government to suspend or remove a functionary.

It is more than evident that provincial polities have failed to resolve their grudge against local governments. They continue to see them as rival institutes and as a necessary evil instead of as an excellent opportunity to make politics more relevant to the people.

Such thinking can lead to bigger disasters in governance. The situation becomes grimmer if one factors in the challenges that the state is currently facing. A recurrent theme underlying the major political and social happenings is the state’s loss of governance space to non-state actors, as evident in the northwest, Balochistan and Karachi. Besides the weakness of its writ, the limits of the state’s outreach also stand exposed when it comes to performing even basic functions; eg, its inability to administer polio drops to all children under five.

Add to this some basic demographic facts. Pakistan is the sixth most populous country; Punjab has more inhabitants than Germany, KP more than the three Scandinavian welfare states put together and New Zealand is comparable in population to Rawalpindi district.

Pakistan’s demographic and geographic challenges make local governments an unavoidable and vital step for developing a modern state. The colonial model of rule through bureaucracy cannot take us forward. It is, in fact, part of the problem and no amount of embellishment, howsoever democratic in appearance, can make it deliver good governance.

The writer works with Punjab Lok Sujag, a research and advocacy group. He recently compiled a compendium on Pakistan’s electoral history since 1970.

Twitter: @TahirMehdiZ.