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LG ennui

Updated May 31, 2015


The writer is a member of staff.
The writer is a member of staff.

WHAT’S the big deal about local governments, anyway? The experts tell us they matter; the electorate tends to respond anaemically; and the public doesn’t really seem to know what local governments will do.

And so here we are, halfway through LG elections, with Sindh and Punjab to come next, in September. Maybe all we need to know about these local governments is that the provinces run by the biggest political parties of the last few decades — the PPP and PML-N — will be the last to hold LG elections.

Arch-democrats finishing last in the democracy race? You already know something is amiss. But what exactly?

The basic truth is that both civilian and military dispensations like to centralise power — it’s just that their preferred centres are different.

The standard narrative is this: civilians like democracy, the army does not. The basic fact is this: thrice military dispensations have created local-government structures and thrice successor civilian governments have gutted them.

And the basic truth is this: both civilian and military dispensations like to centralise power — it’s just that their preferred centres are different.

For a military-run dispensation, aka dictatorship, a basic formula has emerged: build your legitimacy on a tripod of Supreme Court sanctification; quick and blingy urban-skewed economic growth; and local governments. That tripod is the base for relative legitimacy, allowing a dictator to go on to survive a decade or so before being kicked to the kerb.

But why local governments? Why not stick to the two-tiered system? Here’s where the dirty little secret comes in: the provinces are exactly where political parties would like power concentrated.

Political parties claim they hate centralisation, but it’s only centralisation of a certain kind they hate — the one in Islamabad, either in a one-man presidency or a presidency-controlled parliament. Political parties love power concentrated at the provincial level — because that’s where they are the best organised and the most resilient.

The dictator knows that, so that’s why each time he’s tried to bypass the provincial tier and create a local political leadership that is beholden to him. And the politician also knows that, that’s why each time a dictator has been kicked out, the federal government — drawn from the same parties that dominate the provinces — has scuttled what the dictator tried to do.

The story of the 18th Amendment is perfectly illustrative of the local government dynamic. Everyone’s heard of the great devolution of powers from Islamabad to the provinces in the 18th Amendment; some two dozen ministries and departments devolved to the provinces; and all that money transferred to the provinces under the last NFC award.

Everyone’s heard of it because that’s what the politicians bragged about. But hear any of them say anything about the third tier of government around the time of the 18th Amendment? No. Because they did nothing for the third tier — it was Musharraf who introduced the operational LG clause in the Constitution, Article 140-A, via the 14th Amendment.

Ah, but at least they didn’t chuck it out this time, you’re thinking. And at least the provinces are holding the elections now. Well, follow that story a bit. Why exactly are we having local government elections just now?

Post-Charter of Democracy it would have been bad form for the last parliament to have thrown out LGs altogether or for the present assemblies to ignore them completely, but it was really the Court of Chaudhry that got us here. Chaudhry was the one insistent on LG elections and it was his court that produced the original judgement demanding the provinces hold LG elections.

At his farewell reference, this happened, according to this newspaper: “Commenting on local government polls in the country, the chief justice said the apex court ensured the constitutional command of Article 140-A in that regard. ‘I am confident and hopeful that the judiciary will continue to support democracy in this vein’.”

The language may be soft, but it spoke of great disruption — getting the provinces to hold LG elections was one of the cornerstones of Chaudhry’s judicial hyper-activism. Ah, but he’s been gone since December 2013 and the LG election schedule came in March this year, you’re thinking

But see who’s been there all along, coaxing, cajoling, haranguing and thundering at the governments and the ECP — a Chaudhry disciple and possibly the last judge left on the bench in the Chaudhry mould, Jawwad Khawaja.

It was this Khawaja threat in early March that nearly precipitated a crisis: “We are deliberately exercising caution and restraint by not issuing contempt notices to the chief executive, but the court will not show reluctance in fulfilling its constitutional obligations if it is established that judgement was flouted.”

The threat to issue a contempt notice to the prime minister over the LG elections in cantonment areas was enough to alarm the ECP and the provinces into drawing up an acceptable election schedule.

Why does any of this matter? All of it is a matter of public record and happened in broad daylight and is nothing new. It matters because it explains why while the experts tell us local governments matter, the electorate tends to respond anaemically and the public doesn’t really know what local governments do.

As long as the politicians prefer to concentrate power at the provincial level, local governments are going to remain largely ineffective and irrelevant. One way that could change is if the court leads the way — as is it did under Chaudhry and as it can with a potentially pivotal case before the Supreme Court involving the signal-free-corridor in Lahore, which could clarify the extent to which the provinces can limit or override the powers of local governments.

Another is a question of time: as the association with military dictators fades, local governments could become palatable to politicians — assuming the transition to democracy continues uninterrupted. A third route would be to create more provinces first, making it easier for politicians to accept the inherent legitimacy of local governments. But that seems a non-starter for the same reason politicians dislike LGs.

Any which way, however, it will take many years, possibly a generation or more. Until then, expect a great deal of the public to remain bemused by or uninterested in local governments.

The writer is a member of staff.

Twitter: @cyalm

Published in Dawn, May 31st, 2015

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