A couple of weeks ago, I was invited to a Twitter space on local governments on a Sunday evening. As participation did not involve looking presentable or getting out of the house on a cold evening, I managed to turn up. Local government is a topic much beloved — outside of those who ‘do’ mainstream media, where little beyond the immediate is discussed.
The space was no different. But as is the case with rich discussions, there is always a sentence or two which gets stuck in one’s mind. This time around, it was the argument presented by one speaker — that local government could be one way of dealing with the widespread unrest and discontent from below. From the Haq Do Tehreek in Gwadar to the PTM in the former Fata areas, to even the youth who are supposed to support the PTI because they are not happy with the status quo, there is evidence enough of this.
This discontent is not just due to a denial of basic rights and services but also the economic situation and the youth bulge, a phrase which has entered our political lexicon this past year. With a growing population and worsening economic, social and human indicators, discontent is bound to grow, and so will eventually disorder.
Just consider Balochistan, where the violence has continued since 2006 despite different regimes. As has been pointed out more than once, it is the youth which play a more significant role in it than the tribal sardars.
Discontent is bound to grow and so will eventually disorder.
The PTM may be a more recent phenomenon but the ban on its coverage and the restrictions on Mohsin Dawar and Ali Wazir do not seem to have tamped down the movement. The fracas over Manzoor Pashteen’s speech at the Asma Jahangir Conference late last year is evidence of it.
But obviously, these issues do not bother our political parties, which are not interested in sharing power or devolving it beyond the provincial capitals — be it the PPP or PML-N, which passed weak laws despite the criticism, especially in places such as Karachi, or the PTI, which diluted the original local government law in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and delayed local elections in Punjab despite coming to power there in 2018.
However, even with mainstream parties, or rather parties which are focused on the mainstream areas, there are pressures from below. The growing discontent is obvious. As a young politician, who shall remain anonymous, pointed out, while journalists tend to focus on the issue of dynasty at the national level and its impact on democratic decision-making within political parties, resentment against the phenomenon was also growing at the constituency level. The domination of families in halqas has prevented others within parties from aspiring to the ticket and contesting national- and provincial-level elections.
The father passes the party ticket on to son or daughter; others who may have worked for the party for years or provided funds are supposed to simply watch from the sidelines. But this is no longer acceptable — the growing noise over the award of tickets to family members is evidence of this, as is the increasing number of candidates in each constituency with every election — for there are no other avenues available for those who are politically ambitious.
In fact, at the constituency level, there are many stories of party loyalists who switched sides or contested independently after being denied tickets — Salman Naeem, the PTI dissident, contested the election independently in 2018 for this reason. That he later switched sides and was then defeated by Zain Qureshi in the Punjab by-election does not change the underlying reality — political parties need to create more space for more aspirants and for more competition, rather than limiting it. Otherwise, the attrition of people will weaken them and their chances of electoral wins. So, the young politician argued, as did the speaker on the Twitter space, local governments can help address this discontent.
Empowered local governments with regular elections can allow for multiple players and candidates within parties to be accommodated in the electoral process. In other words, narrow self-interest should push the parties towards devolution if they want to survive the challenge posed by the PTI, PTM or even the resurgence of the Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) in Karachi.
Here too, as Ziaur Rehman, a journalist based in Karachi, pointed out, the JI made a conscious decision to rebrand itself as a party which was focused on local issues, such as sewage, water and helping people with their electricity bills. In doing so, it followed the strategy of the Haq Do Tehreek in Gwadar, which is also led by a local JI leader. That it has done so well is worth paying attention to, for ultimately basic services matter to the ordinary voter.
The JI’s performance, the focus of Haq Do on local issues and the local grievances highlighted by the PTM, as well as the failure of urban centres to provide for their inhabitants simply underscore the need for more democracy at more levels, rather than it being just a centre-versus-provinces debate. This has to be the way forward, for the parties as well as the state and society.
The 18th Amendment was a step in the right direction but as it wasn’t built upon, it has simply created provincial fiefdoms. Now is the time to build further, or should one say, demolish further, the centralised power structures which can no longer withstand the pressures from below.
Postscript: The electricity breakdown on Monday morning resulted in a rushed job with the article. Writing the piece every week is a fight against time, usually, but on Monday morning it was a battle against a dying laptop battery. Like all else in this country, it was beyond my control, so I can only offer an apology for any incoherence.
The writer is a journalist.
Published in Dawn, January 24th, 2023