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The third tier

November 01, 2015


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

THE only thing you need to know about these elections has nothing to do with these elections. So, let’s play a game.

The 18th Amendment was the greatest devolution of power from the centre to the provinces in the country’s history. Or something like that.

So many ministries devolved, such quantums of resources transferred, it was epic. Quick — name four ministries devolved to the provinces in the 18th Amendment?

Nope, nothing? OK, then try this. Slowly — name any one of your provincial ministers for population welfare, women development, youth affairs and special initiatives.

Still nothing? OK, how about your ministers for health, education or labour?

The secret of the 18th Amendment is that it’s exposed the politicians even more.

Who knows, who cares, right? Most folk probably only realised we have provincial HECs when Asim Hussain was arrested.

We aren’t supposed to make light of elections. They are solemn occasions; what set us apart from animals and kingdoms of yore.

Now, we’ve embarked on allegedly the biggest ever electoral exercise in Punjab and Sindh, after the multi-phase election no one has ever heard of in Balochistan a year ago and the mess that was KP in May. Hurrah for democracy. May the best men — and, hopefully, some women — win. And then what?

Well, best case scenario, we’re told not to expect much, but more democracy is always a good thing and that over time, who knows, maybe, a new class of politicians will rise to challenge the status quo.

Or something.

More likely: we’re about to find out that systems res­p­ond to the incentives that helped create them — and that unintended consequences are rarely all that nice.

So let’s start with the 18th Amendment. The guiding spirit behind it was threefold — and connected: centralise power in the provinces; reverse, or at least stall, the centre’s expansion; and make coups unlikely.

That was also the problem with it. The reason for the 18th Amendment was not governance, it was civ-mil — and for precisely that reason the 18th has produced so little on the governance front.

Post-Mush, with the Charter of Democracy still animating the PPP and the PML-N, the goal was to clean up the Constitution — and make it dictator-proof.

Ostensibly, by transferring mega resources to the provinces, stripping away sundry ministries from the centre and creating five power centres — the four provinces and Islamabad — future dictators would have a heck of a problem.

Noble as that goal was, it wasn’t the whole truth, or the part of the truth that mattered — it just so happens that politicians know how to work the levers of power at the provincial level best and that’s where they want power concentrated.

To the extent that we — you and me, the public at large — could piggyback on the politicians’ self-interest to get a better governance outcome for the citizenry, it was — and is — worth supporting what the pols did in the 18th Amendment.

But it’s not working for governance because the politicians have already achieved what they thought it could — and much of it has already been reversed.

The good/bad secret of the 18th Amendment is that it’s exposed the politicians even more. Grab a copy of the 18th and have a look at Sindh, where the PPP has been ruling for eight years. Gone is the old fig leaf of blaming the centre for problems in the provinces — the PPP can’t even argue that it’s struggling to deliver because it has been cut out at the centre.

Meanwhile, over in Punjab, the desperation by Shahbaz to control electricity has showed how little the amendment matters to the principal political/governance challenge of this parliament and assemblies.

As for the boys, well, the boys have adapted and merrily moved on — they’re so good at controlling the stuff they want to control now, you can’t imagine why they’d want to take over.

Net effect on governance, the incidental goal — minimal. Net effect on civ-mil, the fundamental goal — never mind. That’s the 18th Amendment.

Now, all of us will have local governments — and again the reason is not governance. Worse, we will have local governments because of the courts, not the public. Post-18th, the continuing decline of service delivery had created the possibility of public pressure on the political class. You guys control everything now, so why is everything still so screwed up?

It could have led to something we haven’t seen before: the gradual build-up of pressure at the grass roots to improve things.

Which is exactly the benefit of democratic continuity. Keep the system going, people start asking uncomfortable things, politicians may have to learn to adapt.

Until the courts unwittingly rode to the political parties’ rescue, political parties were possibly heading towards a squeeze: they aggregated everything to themselves in the provinces, but then weren’t able to turn around the provinces, making for an eventually restless public.

Now, forced to create a local government system by the courts that is confusing and confounding, the emerging clarity has been killed off.

What is the new system? If it doesn’t deliver, do we blame teething problems or structural problems? If structural problems, then was it just oversight or deliberate sabotage by the politicians?

It’ll be years before folk will have anything approaching clarity on any of those questions.

Years in which, had the courts not intervened to force LG elections, anger at the 18th Amendment scheme of things could have led to real pressure for change.

A little less governance, a whole new tier of government and a public that can’t be sure who to blame — what could be better? If you’re a politician, anyway.

The writer is a member of staff.

Twitter: @cyalm

Published in Dawn, November 1st, 2015

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