IN the main, local governments are in existence in Pakistan for two reasons. One, the elected political class as a whole inserted a clause in the Constitution via the 18th Amendment requiring that LG systems be established in the provinces and calling for the devolution of “political, administrative and financial responsibility and authority to the elected representatives of the local governments” (Article 140A).
Two, the Supreme Court indefatigably pursued the matter of the provinces holding LG elections. The ambivalence of the major political parties to hold LG polls and meaningfully transfer power to LGs can be gauged from the relatively scant treatment of the subject in the 2013 manifestos.
The PPP and PML-N essentially glossed over the subject of LGs, while the PTI, which did go on to transfer significant responsibilities and powers to LGs in KP, pledged to hold LG elections within 100 days, a promise that was not kept.
In 2018, the challenges on the LG front remain significant.
Complicating the matter, though allowing for comparisons among the major political parties, is that the current LG systems were brought into existence by four different political governments in the four provinces.
If there is a transfer of power at the provincial level to a different political party or coalition following the 2018 general election, the future of local government in that province will depend on the provincial governing party’s commitment to the democratic project.
Certainly, the PTI has demonstrated that it is head and shoulders above the other major parties in its commitment to meaningful reforms at the local level.
In KP, the LG system is, on paper and in practice so far, forward-thinking and innovative. The extension of franchise to the village and neighbourhood level, including the funnelling of significant powers and monies to village councils and neighbourhood councils, is unprecedented. Mandating that at least 30pc of the provincial development government be transferred to LGs is historic.
The execution of LGs in KP has not been without its problems. Monitoring the functioning of village and neighbourhood councils has proved difficult in practice; a relative lack of expertise and capacity at the local level has limited utilisation of LG powers and duties; and the provincial financial commission and LG commission have not been as active as they ought to be.
Yet, the problems pale in comparison to Punjab and Sindh, where LGs have arguably been structured to fail or certainly remain wholly dependent on the provincial set-ups.
Remarkably, lacunae in the Punjab and Sindh LG systems allow for Punjab to dissolve LGs by notification before the expiry of its term while the Sindh law does not automatically require the holding of the next LG polls after the completion of the current term.
Meanwhile, Balochistan may have been the first provincial government to hold a round of LG elections, but with overall governance structures in the province in a shambles and a security environment that is virtually inimical to civilian administration, there is little welcome news from there.
More positively, the very fact that LGs exist in all four provinces and each of the major political parties has experience with drafting and implementing LG systems suggests the general election could be an opportunity for the major political parties to put forward improvements to the LG systems and for voters at the provincial level to demand improvements at the LG level.
The PTI is perhaps best positioned to carry the debate forward on LG; the positive LG example the party has set may encourage other parties to follow suit.
Published in Dawn, June 11th, 2018