Power and empowerment

Published June 21, 2015

The dictators’ survival manual


Every time a democratic government has been overthrown, local government has been used to create an illusion of power being transferred to the grassroots


With local government a key priority, President Gen Pervez Musharraf chairs a meeting on the local government system
With local government a key priority, President Gen Pervez Musharraf chairs a meeting on the local government system

King James II might not have imagined that the municipal system he had exported to India in 1687 for handling civic issues such as cleanliness, water supply and sanitation would be used four centuries later by Pakistani dictators seeking legitimacy and popular support.

Through a royal charter issued on Dec 30, 1687, the King had established the Corporation of Madras as the first municipal body. Members of this body used to be selected by the East India Company while the mayor was elected by the members. The municipal corporations of Calcutta and Bombay were formed in 1726, while the system of elected municipal institutions came into being in 1882. By 1935, hundreds of local body institutions were added across India.

While the municipal bodies were not democratic in nature, they were nonetheless aimed at handling civic issues. The basic functions of the local body system throughout the British era remained water supply, sewerage, sanitation, street lights, recreation, building regulations, controlling encroachment on public places, birth and marriage registrations, and issuance of death certificates.

After Partition, India improved the system, conducted regular elections and used the local body institutions to resolve basic everyday issues of the citizens. But in Pakistan, as with many other institutions established during the colonial period, local municipal bodies did not see any continuity after Partition. The local body system was effectively abandoned.

Worse, while local body systems in other parts of the world have served as a basis for grassroots governance, in Pakistan it has historically been used to reinforce power hierarchies and create perceptions of empowerment.

Ayub Khan’s Basic Democracy

The first ‘new’ local body system was created by General Muhammad Ayub Khan under the Basic Democracies Order-1959. He was of the view that democracy was as alien a concept to the Pakistani masses as the English language, and thus, it needed to start from a very basic level.


This line of thought was first introduced by Iskandar Mirza, who believed that “overwhelmingly illiterate masses were bound to act foolishly. Having no training in democracy, they could not run democratic institutions, but needed a controlled democracy.” Thus began the concept of experimenting with democracy.


In fact, this line of thought was first introduced by Iskandar Mirza, who believed that “overwhelmingly illiterate masses were bound to act foolishly. Having no training in democracy, they could not run democratic institutions, but needed a controlled democracy.”

Thus began the concept of experimenting with democracy, which later on became a readymade mantra for successive dictators.

Gen Ayub Khan introduced four tiers of local governance: union, taluka, district and divisional councils. Elected union councillors (80,000) were the “basic democrats” in this system; they were to elect the president, members of the National Assembly, as well as members of the provincial assemblies (East and West wings). The rest of the country had no right to direct voting.

Ayub Khan ensured that no opponent of his was elected as a basic democrat. A number of politicians were disqualified under the Elective Bodies Disqualification Order (EBDO).

Going apolitical with Zia

The local body system remained inactive till 1979, when it was revived by General Ziaul Haq, again in a quest for legitimacy. Local body elections held by his regime empowered those traditional political families who had switched loyalties and pledged support for the regime.

As with Gen Ayub before him, the Zia government disqualified all candidates who were thought to be opposition loyalists (in this case the PPP) or even sympathisers. To achieve this task, Gen Zia set up a parallel election authority for conducting local body elections, called the Local Government Election Authority (LGEA). Headed by pro-regime judges and run by pliant officials, this body superseded the Election Commission of Pakistan.

Devolution of power with Musharraf

Upon assuming power, General Pervez Musharraf unveiled a seven-point agenda to ‘fix’ the country. A key component of his scheme was the devolution of power to the local level, but in doing so, the General bypassed the federating units who are the de jure creators of the federation.

Critical to Musharraf’s plan was the creation of a coterie of loyalists at the local level. The new system was to produce a large number of councillors, nazims and naib nazims, all of whom were only effectively answerable to the General. Accountability now rested not with people’s representatives, but with the General’s person; district governments were given immense powers to the extent that they could defy provincial governments.

The local body system was so important for Gen Musharraf that he visited 18 districts in the country’s four provinces to create his clique of loyalists. The general pledged unprecedented powers to local body institutions and he was true to his word: district administrations not only enjoyed more fiscal autonomy, but even subjects that constitutionally fell under provincial domains at the time — education and revenue, for example — were handed to the districts.

Members of the Councillors Alliance, Peshawar at a protest camp outside the district council’s hall
Members of the Councillors Alliance, Peshawar at a protest camp outside the district council’s hall

In the 2001 local body polls, most candidates went unopposed because the General’s opponents were discouraged from filing nomination papers for the polls; there were 20,076 councillors’ seats in 18 districts and about 2,041 seats were uncontested. As a result, 3,937 candidates won unopposed.


All dictators tweaked the system as per the needs of their time. Their survival was tied to excluding the common man from governance and decision making, even though the illusion created by all dictators was that they were now including the common man in the processes of governance... The concentration of power at the higher echelons of the government led to authoritarianism that also suited the traditional ruling class.


There were 5,734 seats for women and no one contested the election for 3,106 seats; some 1,710 women were elected unopposed. While Musharraf’s team argued that they actually wanted to empower women, labourers and peasants, in reality, 48pc of women’s seats remained uncontested in 2001 while 65.48pc of labour seats remained vacant.

The 2001 local body polls were held in an extremely restrictive atmosphere. In an attempt to bring only loyalists to power, the military government placed a ban on normal electoral activities. Candidates were given only 10 days for electioneering. No corner meetings were allowed, displaying banners and pasting wall posters were barred too. Even the use of loudspeakers was banned. It was not possible for candidates to go door-to-door for seeking votes.

Only handbills were allowed to be circulated among masses in a country with 60-70pc illiterate people. The voting process was so confusing that in some constituencies, the majority of votes cast were cancelled or rejected.

Another dynamic to emerge from the 2001 elections was that 90pc of the nazims, naib nazims and councillors came from traditional powerful political families. In practice, Gen Musharraf’s local government system had created fiefdoms for local landlords and influential people. Several district assemblies came into being, and money was doled out directly. Many misappropriated and misused funds, but there was no auditing and monitoring system to keep any checks on this.

Delaying democracy?

There is an American aphorism which says “bad politicians are sent to Washington by good people who don’t vote”. If we change this in the Pakistani context, it should read: “Bad politicians are sent to Islamabad by good people who manoeuvre votes.” The local body systems introduced by various dictators withered away as soon as these men were dislodged from power.

No one can deny the importance of the local body system because it is a tier of the government through which the day-to-day problems of the people relating to water supply, street light and cleanliness, maintenance of recreational places, issuing birth, marriage and death certificates, etc. can be solved at the local level.

But the local body systems introduced by military regimes were flawed and self-serving. They not only created political crises but also delayed the natural growth of this very important tier of the government. The biggest drawback of the systems introduced by Gen Ayub Khan, Gen Ziaul Haq and Gen Pervez Musharraf was that power never trickled down to the people because the military regimes wanted a unitary system of governance at the national level.

Ayub Khan hinged on the idea of ‘basic democracy’, Zia spearheaded an apolitical local body system and Musharraf harped on ‘devolution of power’ to a grassroots level. Ayub, Zia and Musharraf’s local body systems brought new loyalists, proxies and protégés of old established parties but by and large excluded the masses from the political process and administrative affairs. The so-called third tier of the government that the military rulers introduced headed for disastrous consequences because of this self-centric approach of the dictators.

All dictators tweaked the system as per the needs of their time. Their survival was tied to excluding the common man from governance and decision making, even though the illusion created by all dictators was that they were now including the common man in the processes of governance. Thus they used the local body electoral landscape to forestall the entry of protagonists to the power corridors.

The concentration of power at the higher echelons of the government led to authoritarianism that also suited the traditional ruling class. The entire political discourse was lost in a maze of structural problems because of absence of the primary tier of the government.

Past experiences in local governance have also taught us that there is a strong need to improve the relationship between provincial governments and local body institutions. The military rulers’ love for over-centralisation undermined the federating units. The military rulers gave provincial powers to the local administrations and local powers to the provincial governments. During the earlier phases, there were no clear spheres of administration because the local body systems imposed by the military rulers infringed on provincial powers.

For example, during the Musharraf regime, municipal administrations were given funds to initiate mega projects like expressways, flyovers and underpasses while the provincial governments were slammed for not providing funds for garbage collection, maintenance of public recreation facilities and urban planning. Meanwhile, the city administrations absolved themselves of their responsibilities and demanded provision of more funds instead of enhancing capacity to cope with rain-related and fire emergencies.

There is a need for clear demarcation between jurisdictions of provincial and local body administrations. This is necessary because the district nazims, who mostly were influential people of their areas, victimised their political opponents. The irony was that civic amenities like public parks and playgrounds, etc. remained in shambles while the nazims kept demanding that the powers of the chief minister — for example, controlling the police — be given to them. The districts and city nazims were so powerful administratively and resourceful financially that even former MNAs and MPAs preferred to be nazims.

After the landmark 18th Amendment, the local body system has become a provincial subject. Balochistan made history in 2013 by conducting the country’s first ever local body polls on party basis. It was also the first local body election held under a political dispensation. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa held polls on May 30 with additional features of village and neighbourhood councils. Sindh and Punjab have completed necessary legislation in this connection and are planning to hold LB elections by the end of this year.

But for these systems to work, the enforcement of an effective monitoring and accountability mechanism is imperative for the strong local body system. When power is devolved from the top echelons to the lower tiers of government, there must be check and balances to know how public money was spent. And this is not possible till the local communities are made strong and local administration is run from the local body institutions, instead of from the autaqs of waderas, pirs and mirs as has been the historical practice.

The much cherished objective of good governance can be achieved when the local body system is deeply rooted among village communities and adapted to modern needs. The third tier of the government can then be a platform to improve local politics, economy, culture and society at large.

The writer is a member of staff.

He tweets @manzoor_chandio

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, June 21st, 2015

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