AFTER dithering for nine months, the PTI has now passed a new local government law for Punjab. PTI’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa LG law contains some novel features even if its roll-out has been weak. One had hoped that the PTI would improve the PML-N-era LG law that centralised powers with the province. But both the process of adoption and contents of the PTI law raise concerns.
The Ayub, Zia, Musharraf and PML-N Punjab LG laws didn’t survive beyond the terms of their sponsors as they served ulterior political aims and were adopted without the opposition’s support. This is in contrast to the collaborative processes via which the 18th Amendment, 2017 election law and the Fata merger law were passed together by all major parties, thus increasing their longevity prospects.
The need for such collaboration is much higher on the PTI watch compared with the PML-N era. The PML-N had a two-thirds majority from a credible poll while the PTI has a thin majority from a dubious poll. The PML-N law was also more in line with earlier LG laws in Pakistan. The PTI law diverges sharply on key clauses from not only the earlier PML-N Punjab law but also all earlier LG laws, including PTI’s KP law. Also, the PTI dissolved the existing LG bodies prematurely. This politicised process raises concerns about this law’s political aims and longevity.
The law includes some fine ideas like replacing UC councils with village ones and allocating them 30 per cent of total funds. But the PTI was unable to implement such modalities properly even in much smaller KP.
The law contains features that mirror false ideas.
The law also contains four new features that mirror four false ideas often given as panacea for Pakistan’s national governance woes by elements close to the PTI and the establishment. These include a directly elected chief executive, technocratic cabinets, proportional representation (PR) and smaller administrative units. Thus, their reflection in the LG law is seen by some as a trial balloon for later attempts to introduce them at higher levels.
The law mandates directly elected mayors who can fill the bulk of their cabinet with non-elected professionals. This closely mirrors the demand for a directly elected presidency with technocratic cabinets nationally. It is argued that a directly elected LG head will be more empowered and effective while technocrats will bring merit and capacity to governance.
If this is so, why not do the same at the provincial and national levels? It is here that this logic runs afoul of global evidence as the vast majority of the best governed states follow the parliamentary system. There’s also evidence that the presidential system doesn’t suit multi-ethnic states like Pakistan. Also, many of the technocrats appointed in the past in Pakistan had dubious backgrounds and performances.
The law also mandates the PR system, often touted by some as the better electoral system for Pakistan. It is argued that PR would help break the hold of patronage and dynastic politics and electables and allow party heads to name capable and honest persons on party lists. But practice shows that even under the PR system, party leaders still largely appoint electables practising patronage and dynastic politics given their sizeable vote banks in many areas without which the party can’t win there.
Sri Lanka is the only Saarc state using PR. Even there, electables and patronage politics still dominate. Globally, PR usually produces unstable coalitions that don’t complete their terms in divided societies. In Pakistan, the use of PR may make it impossible for a majority coalition to be formed without two of the three major parties being in it. And such a coalition may be riven with internal conflicts.
Finally, the law replaces districts with much smaller tehsils as the highest administrative LG unit. This is an untried model. The seductive logic given is that smaller administrative units will bring governance closer to the people. This seems in line with the logic given by some to make 26 smaller provinces nationally. But there’s little global evidence that smaller administrative units help improve governance.
Thus, all four ideas are inadvisable at the federal level and it is unclear how they will work even at the LG level, especially given the legendary incompetence of the PTI Punjab set-up. The hope with such ideas is that mere electoral system tinkering can overcome the deep structural constraints that undermine good governance, like patronage politics. But just as the tail can never wag the dog, electoral innovations cannot nullify the drag of such constraints.
Ultimately, powerful societal forces find ways to mould all electoral systems to their needs. In Pakistan, the big risk is that such ideas won’t improve governance but will only make it easier for the establishment to control politics.
The writer is a senior fellow with UC Berkeley and heads INSPIRING Pakistan, a think tank.
Published in Dawn, June 4th, 2019