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Punjab local govts face uncertain future

Updated December 24, 2016

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The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz has swept the elections of heads of local governments — metropolitan/municipal corporations, district councils and municipal committees — in Punjab as expected. Its rivals Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf and Pakistan Peoples Party had been routed in the earlier phase when the people had elected their local level representatives by direct vote.

At most places the PML-N was competing against itself. Even the independent candidates emerging victorious against the PML-N ticket holders had the backing of one faction or the other of the ruling party in line with their local political rivalries and groupings. In many cases, a handful of those elected in the first phase under the banner of the PTI and PPP too ended up voting for one PML-N group or the other.

Although the PML-N’s victory was a foregone conclusion, the third and final phase of the local government elections did throw up a few surprises like the defeat at the hands of the PML-Q man of Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan’s nephew who was contesting for the office of chairman of the Attock District Council. In Pakpattan, too, the PML-N lost to the PTI in what is being seen as a ‘major upset’ for the ruling party at the local level.

These isolated ‘upsets’ notwithstanding, the PML-N will rule the local government system in the province unchallenged with the old families, well entrenched in the politics of the province, heading them in most districts.

But it is not the ‘one-party’ rule in the districts that is bothering most. It’s the ‘uncertain’ future and ineffectiveness of the system that worries most. There’s no dearth of people who think that the new local governments may not last very long, given the fact that the next general elections are scheduled to be held only one and a half years from now.

“Chances are the opposition parties may soon start demanding that these institutions be suspended to prevent them from influencing the outcome of the national polls in 2018,” argued Salman Abid, who has done a lot of work on the local government system in the country.

“After all, none of the major opposition party has any representation or real stake in the new system that will be ruled by the PML-N alone. I’m concerned about the possible demise of the system, whose credibility is damaged by the tactics employed by the ruling party to ensure its success in almost every district, a lot earlier than the expiry of its term.”

Others like Anwar Hussain, executive director of the Local Governments Association of Punjab, are concerned about the utility and effectiveness of the new local government system. “This is unfortunate that our political parties are not interested in having a powerful, effective third tier of government in place,” he regretted. “The new system entrusts only insignificant and limited financial and administrative decision-making powers to the public representatives at the grass-roots level.”

With the provincial government controlling the finances, MNAs and MPAs have been given a major role in the development projects at the local level. Moreover, these ‘elected’ governments will be effectively controlled by the bureaucracy at the behest of the provincial government with the Local Government Commission filled by the provincial government having the power to remove a mayor or a chairman. Last but not the least, the creation of autonomous provincial authorities to take away the control of the local governments on sectors like health and education leaves them with little to deliver to their constituents.

Both Mr Abid and Mr Hussain agree that the previous law regulating the local government system designed under the military regime gave the elected representatives at the local level much more powers to make their own development decisions as well as some control over the bureaucracy.

“The new local government framework of Punjab is a total negation of the Constitution’s Article 140(A), which envisages financially and administratively powerful local governments,” said Mr Abid. He said Khyber Pakhtunkhwa had framed a much better law, which allots 30 per cent of the province’s development budget to the local governments.

“The passage of the 18th amendment had triggered a hope that the provinces would take the process of devolution of financial and administrative decentralisation down to the grass-roots level for the resolution of crisis (of public service delivery) and the MNAs/MPAs will focus on legislation instead of fighting for development funds. But that does not seem to be happening any time soon,” concluded Mr Abid.

Published in Dawn December 24th, 2016