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Analysis: LG system: Frustrated but not foiled

Updated October 31, 2015

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The Punjab and Sindh governments’ cat-and-mouse game with local governments is over.—AP/File
The Punjab and Sindh governments’ cat-and-mouse game with local governments is over.—AP/File

THE Punjab and Sindh governments’ cat-and-mouse game with local governments is nearly over. Polling in the three-phased elections will start today (Oct 31) and conclude on Dec 5.

The two provinces have resisted their constitutional responsibility to add the third tier of governance for well over five years; they were battered into submission only by successive court orders. But they had ample opportunities, and availed every bit of them, to ensure that the new system does not take away any of their powers.

The incumbent parties have instilled crippling elements into the laws that will give birth to and govern this system. For example, the all-important subjects of education and health are out of bounds for the elected local bodies as these will be handed over to authorities headed by bureaucrats. So many ‘checks and balances’ have been placed on matters related to development budgets that effective control over every penny will remain centralised in the provincial capitals.

The local governments will have no powers over the functionaries performing under them. They will also be vigilantly policed by a commission; they have been stuffed with close to half or even more indirectly elected members.

So, forget about devolution, for these elections are designed not to deliver it. Is the massive festival currently under way futile, then? Where will it lead us?

Howsoever Machiavellian the provincial lawmakers might have been, they simply can’t help suppress some positive outcomes.

Foremost is the fact that these elections will throw up a new popular verdict and since these are party-based elections, the verdict will bear party colours. Then, the electioneering is happening when the governments in the two provinces are halfway through their tenures — so there will be no escape from seeing results as a judgement on their performance.

Elected governments in Pakistan have never before gone through such large-scale, mid-term tuning or realignment experiences (as elections to the national and provincial assemblies are always held simultaneously). Even the few days’ difference in polling for the two assemblies was removed in 1997. Though by-elections are held often, their scale is too small to have a meaningful impact.

This is unlike other countries, where popular verdicts are refreshed continuously. They keep coming in from various corners and in different forms which keeps the democratic discourse in shape. Consider, for example, India’s case. The BJP won the general elections with a thumping majority last year but the currently under way Bihar assembly elections are giving it sleepless nights. Its results will be interpreted in the light of the Modi government’s performance and are bound to force it to mend ways or change strategies. Pakistan’s electoral system, however, has instituted no such midway course-correction mechanism. It treats the ballot box as a lucky-draw box and once the lottery is won, the game is over till the next draw.

The local government elections will end this in a rather subtle manner. The ‘new’ party positions arising out of these elections will not only have a big impact on the present political discourse, they will cast a long shadow over the next general elections, scheduled for 2018.

The updated party maps that these elections will lay bare will be amazingly detailed, with exact statistics available down to the village and neighbourhood levels that, on the average, have 1,500 votes each. This will be a remarkable tool for the planners of the next general elections.

These elections will also push patronage-based constituency politics to the edge. Presently, each parliamentarian maintains a transactional relationship with around 100 small political actors of his or her constituency. These self-appointed leaders of a village or a neighbourhood mobilise their social capital to deliver a share of votes from their area and in return receive small favours for themselves, and occasionally for their communities, in the form of official permissions, access to services or small contracts, grants or leases. Through the electoral success of their patron, they are able to convert their goodwill and social capital into a political one.

These micro-leaders’ ability to deliver to and thus sustain their relationship with the communities, however, is solely dependent on the patronage of senior leaders. The local elections are being contested by the same minnow politicians. The victorious ones will be transformed into legitimate elected representatives of their areas — and that will be quite different from being a handpicked worker of a national or a provincial leader.

Notwithstanding the constraints of the local government system, they are bound to start considering the perks that were earlier bestowed upon them by senior leaders as their political right. This will call for a redefinition of the patronage relationship. Most of the big leaders may not find it easy to adjust to this new reality and are likely to end up complicating their relationship with their constituencies.

Though the provincial governments have given themselves the power to dismiss local governments before the general election of 2018, a court intervention to get any such act annulled is not unlikely. In such a scenario, local leaders will assume heightened importance, even a make-or-break role. And the more ambitious among them would want to make the most of the difficulties of their erstwhile patrons. They will know when it’s time to hit — hard, and where it hurts the most.

The writer works with Punjab Lok Sujag, a research and advocacy group.

Published in Dawn, October 31st, 2015

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