The people’s moment

Published January 31, 2022

In the first half of this calendar year, the country will see much delayed, staggered local government (LG) elections that would open up nationwide but uneven avenues at the grassroots level for the people to assume responsibility for the socio-economic development of their areas. This may eventually unleash the potential for things to move in the right direction.

Under the proposed diverse models, the level of fiscal, administrative and political autonomy granted to LGs would differ from province to province, depending on the political orientation of party/coalition governing a federating unit.

No firm date has been fixed for LG polls in Sindh and Balochistan. The second phase of the LG elections in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is re-scheduled for March 27. The first phase in Punjab on May 15 will be followed by the second within a month.

Preceding the general elections to be conducted in 2023, staggered LG polls may turn out to be a strong indicator of evolving politics and its fallout on the orientation of post-election socio-economic policies. Badly hit in these hard times, the voiceless would exercise their sovereign right to choose their representatives for national and provincial assemblies as well as LGs within a span of about a year.

There is no consensus on the quantum of autonomy that needs to be entrusted to local governments while political parties and provinces attempt to implement their own versions

Inflation and unemployment — key factors of instability in the economy — are major issues of citizen’s concern that are likely to influence the preferences of the voters. Inflation is the problem keeping him awake at night, says concerned Prime Minister Imran Khan.

The local bodies polls have come after repeated interventions of the courts and Election Commission, mounting political pressure and widening public concerns over denial of essential social and physical infrastructure including civic facilities both in urban and rural areas. There has been widespread countrywide demand for LGs elections and their empowerment as envisaged by the Constitution with the national media and eminent economists playing a prominent role. With politics in a state of flux, 2022 can be described as a year of local governments.

In the above context, the need for the missing third-tier empowered elected government cannot be over-emphasised. The devolution of power and financial resources to the LGs should be a part of prudent fiscal management strategy, says Dr Ishrat Husain in his recent article on ‘Dissecting public expenditure.’

According to Transparency International (TI), the perception of corruption in Pakistan is seen to have risen for the third straight year. The PTI government attributes the worsening TI ranking to a weak rule of law, not financial corruption. In either case, the core issue here is that the governments are not accountable to the electorate but to the extra-constitutional forces. The faltering rule of law is a major cause of financial indiscipline vice-versa.

Discussing the implications of the latest rebasing of the GDP, an opinion piece says “rebasing doesn’t make countries or people richer.” This is demonstrated by the recent National Socio–Economic Registry survey which has identified 34.41 million poor families eligible for financial assistance of Rs12,000 per month under the Ehsaas social safety net programme.

Budget 2021-22 had allocated Rs260 billion to be distributed, to quote a PTI MNA, among some 20m families. In the earlier phase, the relief of Rs179bn was provided to 14.8m families. During July-December 2021 federal development spending was a mere Rs274bn against the budgeted annual figure of Rs900bn for 2021-22.

While the rebasing has jacked up the 2020-21 GDP growth rate from 3.9 per cent to a 4-year high of 5.7pc the State Bank, in its mid-term review, has cut its 2021-22 GDP growth rate forecast from 5pc to 4.5pc. The recovery is neither inclusive nor the growth rate sustainable owing to the worsening balance of payments position.

The cash-trapped federal government relies heavily on the provincial budget surpluses to manage the consolidated deficits. The outcome is widening disparity in household and regional incomes as highlighted by continuing protests in Gwadar and resurfacing of the issue of South Punjab province in the National Assembly.

Then there is no consensus on the quantum of autonomy that needs to be entrusted to LGs. To build one in Sindh, Jamat-i-Islami (JI) leader Naeemur Rehman has made a tactical move urging Chief Minister Murad Ali Shah to enforce ‘Sindh People’s Local Government Ordinance 1972’, the brainchild of PPP founder Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.

The 1972 law, Mr Rehman says, had empowered the municipal system, authorised it for revenue generation and made elected persons true representatives of democracy at the grassroots level. It is however not yet clear the extent of autonomy the provincial government will finally concede in current negotiations with JI or talks later initiated by it with Pak Sarzameen Party. PPP Chairman Bilawal Bhutto told a farmers rally at Hyderabad that under the new LG law “the mayor would collect property tax.”

Baluchistan is trying to work out its own version of LGs, focused on stronger links with local communities different from that of the PTI model for Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

Chief Minister Usman Buzdar, as quoted by the provincial LG minister, believes that the new Local Government Act would herald the development era in Punjab and resolve public issues at the doorsteps of the people.

In due course of time, one may hope, the provinces can learn from each other’s experience and adopt the best suited LG model. To quote a foreign analyst, many of the institutions and attitudes that brought stability in the old world look ill-suited to the new.

It is also important to look at the possible fallout of the local bodies’ polls on the next general elections. The sub-national undertone initially witnessed in local bodies elections in Punjab and the first phase of polls in KP, seem likely to be reinforced in the next general elections if one goes by a survey-based forecast. The survey shows three major political parties, the PML-N, the PPP and PTI, would secure under 50pc votes in Punjab, Sindh and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa respectively. Each of them would thus be the largest party in its stronghold, none a true federal party. This is how hybrid democracy works.

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, January 31st, 2022

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