Unglamorous dreams

Published May 25, 2024
The writer works on cities, local governments, and climate change
The writer works on cities, local governments, and climate change

I HAVE a dream that, one day, Pakistan’s local government (LG) elections will be synced with its general and provincial electoral cycles — and even if our fledgling democracy must continue to fledge, it may do so a little closer to the ground. This is not a particularly glamorous dream, I admit. It has none of MLK’s gravitas, for one, nor a larger appeal to destiny. But let me explain.

It may seem like common sense that the third tier in a democracy would be a natural extension of the democratic chain. One would assume it would be afforded the same respect as its ‘senior’ counterparts — if not more, considering that this tier is closest in proximity to the public and home to the largest number of its representatives. Instead, LGs have been passed over like an unwanted step-sibling since the dawn of the country, only receiving patronage from the unlikeliest benefactors of democracy: military dictators.

Their attempt at using LGs to gain legitimacy — while bypassing the national and provincial leadership — has made Pakistan’s politicians wary of the third tier. Over the decades, each party has paid lip service to strengthening LGs, and each has reneged. The constant restructuring that they have been subjected to means that today, we see a spectrum ranging from provinces where LGs exist but are disempowered, to others that can’t be bothered with the façade.

Even a political demand for establishing LGs has yet to gain public traction. For one, tensions in the national and provincial arenas are already so electrifying that they consistently hold the country’s imagination captive. In such instability, it is difficult to get attention spans to rest on seemingly boring matters of local governance. Secondly, public expectations from representatives are entirely warped, wherein we look towards national-level legislators to perform tasks that are categorically the domain of LGs. Thirdly, LGs are too small, scattered, and fractured of a polity to lobby for their own collective rights.

LGs are the logical step in bringing governance closer to the ground.

All of this is not to say that Pakistan’s general elections are a gold standard for LGs — far from it. But as flawed as that process is, for the time being, it is at least taking place. For instance, if national or provincial elections are indefinitely suspended, the citizenry will — hopefully — notice. LGs, on the other hand, have not even been granted this basic procedural courtesy, and can be unceremoniously dismembered on a whim.

I do not need to make a case for LGs here; it’s been made in these pages before, by myself and many others. Suffice it to say that LGs have long been the next logical step in bringing governance closer to the ground, and no serious analyst can reach a conclusion to the contrary. This is also not a neoliberal call to champion some kind of technocracy. Governance is inherently political, and its most local manifestation must be a product of this political process, rather than captured by the bureaucracy or private sector.

But far from robust LGs with all the powers that ought to rightfully be devolved to them, we seem unable to secure the basic fact of their existence. And if the centre and provinces continue to be so resistant to LGs, perhaps the only way to guarantee this existence is by attaching it to that of the other two. By integrating the election cycles of all three tiers of government, LGs may finally be seen as an inviolable part of the same structure, instead of an optional, external exercise. This can enable these layers to be interwoven in a manner where the absence of LGs is felt as a breach of fundamental democratic rights — as is, in fact, the case.

Democracy can then feel free to collectively flourish or flounder as it pleases, but at least it won’t be structurally mutilated from within. Once the procedural is out of the way, we can move on to the larger questions of autonomy, and how to convince provinces that it is in their best interests to meaningfully devolve political, administrative and fiscal powers — just as it was to them with the 18th Constitutional Amendment.

We are too jaded, too cynical as people to think that LGs are the silver bullet to Pakistan’s governance woes. But if we believe that incremental change has brought us to the doorstep of disaster, then it is incumbent upon us to believe that incremental change can guide us away from it.

This may not be the quick, cathartic solution enforced by one strongman messiah that many would like to see. It is actually quite unglamorous, as incremental change usually is.

The writer works on cities, local governments, and climate change.

Published in Dawn, May 25th, 2024

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