DESPITE the apparent bonhomie between the two while they were part of the previous ruling coalition, the PML-N and PPP are no strangers to confrontation over policy issues.

This should come as no surprise to political observers; both parties have completely different geographical areas of influence — one’s traditional power-base is in Punjab, while the latter has ruled over Sindh — and the ground realities of political interests also differ for both parties.

But for a while, it seemed that the 18th Constitutional Amendment — a watershed moment in Pakistan’s legislative history — was something both parties owned. The move, which essentially ensured more powers and financial independence for provinces by devolving key subjects from the centre, was passed in 2010 under a PPP-led government, with support from the PML-N.

It has since come to be hailed as undoing the accumulation of power in the Centre — something military rulers liked to do — which has been a sore point for the parties, both of whom have had stints in power abruptly interrupted on multiple occasions.

Despite PML-N assurances it merely wants to ‘complete’ the devolution of powers to local governments, its erstwhile ally continues to fear ‘rollback’ in the guise of reform

But now, the amendment’s fate has become the latest battleground for the two ‘national’ parties, with one side claiming it seeks to take the amendment “to its logical conclusion”, and the other viewing this claim with suspicion, anticipating a roll-back.

In recent days, the issue has remained a hotly debated one, with both sides issuing strongly worded statements over the other’s intentions.

But while the stances of the two parties indicate they are poles apart, the reality is that no changes are actually possible without a consensus between both, since any amendments will require a two-thirds majority in parliament — something either party may not be in a position to secure alone.

‘Empowering local governments’

After it was first reported that the PML-N manifesto committee had received suggestions calling for “alterations” to the 18th amendment, the party’s spokesperson clearly said that “no such proposal was under consideration”.

However, the final line of the statement issued by Marriyum Aurangzeb at the time contained a hint at what the party was actually planning. It read: “The party firmly believes that local government institutions serve as the bedrock of democracy, and PML-N is dedicated to fortifying democracy by implementing and enhancing the effectiveness of this system.”

A little over a week later, former planning and development minister Ahsan Iqbal, in a speech at a party event, declared their intentions “to give Pakistan a strong system of local governments” by, in his own words, taking the 18th amendment “to its logical conclusion”.

The 18th amendment was still incomplete, he said, contending that only the first phase of devolution — from Centre to provinces — had been achieved.

The second phase, i.e. further devolution from the provinces to the local government level, was still unfinished, he said, vowing that the party would work towards making it whole.

Talking to Dawn, Mr Iqbal explained that while 17 ministries were devolved from federal government to the provinces in 2010, the provinces did not devolve further powers to the local government. “Before, we had Centre-heavy governance at the top, now we have province-heavy governance in the provinces,” he said.

“The spirit of 18th amendment demands that devolution should be further taken down to people at the grass-roots level through local bodies. The latter part of 18th amendment is still incomplete because provinces have now centralised the power.”

In his view, the provincial capitals should have devolved functions to district and local governments. “We want really effective local government institutions to complete the democratic and federal structure of governance.”

Upon hearing these contentions, one gets a distinct feeling of déjà vu, because the Muttahida Qaumi Movement-Pakistan (MQM-P) has also been saying similar things. In a recent speech, Mustafa Kamal even rejected the legislation in its current form and called for it to be amended further “to ensure that funds transferred to the provinces are fairly distributed to districts”.

When asked whether the party’s stance was a result of their recent agreement with the MQM-P, Mr Iqbal said that this had been a historic struggle by the PML-N.

He also recalled the legal battle undertaken by his son, Ahmed Iqbal — a former chairman of the Narowal district council — who had challenged the 2019 dissolution of local governments in Punjab under PTI rule before the Supreme Court.

Dawn reached out to Ms Aurangzeb for comment on this issue as well, but she did not respond despite repeated attempts over the course of several days.

PPP’s concerns

Despite the specifics shared by PML-N leaders, the PPP leadership doesn’t buy the argument that the changes will stop at the local government system.

“This attempt will be resisted inside and out of parliament. The agendas of the World Bank, Pakistan’s ruling elite and centrist political parties seem to have found common ground. Allocation of resources by the federal government to the districts, is a page from the dictator [General Pervez] Musharraf’s devolution,” PPP stalwart Raza Rabbani said in a recent statement.

Being among the architects of the 18th amendment, the former Senate chairman is understandably touchy about any attempts to undo or alter the legislation.

But his view is one that is shared by his party colleagues. Nisar Khuhro recently said that he feared the formation of a multi-party coalition under the PML-N that would attempt to roll back the 18th Amendment after general elections.

“I appeal to all my friends not to become part of this move,” he said at a recent event at the Karachi Arts Council, equating any tampering with the amendment with an attack on the 1973 Constitution.

Talking to Dawn, PPP spokesperson Faisal Karim Kundi also confirmed that this was their official party line on the matter.

“It’s just an excuse to roll back the 18th Amendment and the PML-N is not new to this. The past governments of both PTI and PML-N had seen the 18th Amendment the same [way] and always wanted to roll it back. This time, it’s being targeted in the name of [creating] a strong local government system,” he argued.

Benazir’s vision or political expedience?

In the middle of this war of words between party leaders, a statement from a member of the PML-N manifesto committee tried to position itself in a way that would be hard for the PPP to oppose.

Reacting to Mr Rabbani’s apprehensions, Secretary General of the PML-N’s Karachi chapter Nasiruddin Mahmood said that he was surprised at the “misinterpretation” by a seasoned parliamentarian of the statement by his party leaders, which “ignoring political history”.

“We wonder how Mr Rabbani forgot the 1993-96 era of the PPP government while issuing such a statement. During that era it was BB [Benazir Bhutto] Shaheed who appointed Kamal Azfar to draft a new social contract. That new social contract basically revolved around one point — strong democracy. And for that strong democracy, a strong and empowered local government system was proposed.”

But talking to Dawn, Mr Kundi questioned the intentions of the PML-N in citing such “historical facts” to substantiate their argument.

“If the PML-N was so concerned about the strong local government system, why didn’t it take an initiative and hold [local bodies] elections in Punjab during its [PDM] government,” he asked.

For his part, PML-N’s Mr Iqbal believes that the PPP has its own ulterior motives for opposing the move.

“In theory, they say that they support local governments… [but] they have objections because they don’t want local government institutions in urban centres to become empowered.”

His view is lent credence by the fact that PPP’s opponent, the MQM-P, has historically had the advantage when it came to local government elections in Karachi and Hyderabad — the main urban centres of the otherwise PPP-ruled Sindh.

But Mr Iqbal is also cognisant of the fact that for a constitutional amendment to pass, his party will need the support of others across the political spectrum, including the PPP.

“Whatever system is formed in the country will be made through consensus,” he said.

Amir Wasim in Islamabad also contributed to this report

Published in Dawn, December 11th, 2023

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