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Still no progress

December 12, 2012

THE current administration touts the strengthening of democracy as its most important achievement. Yet one of the building blocks of democracy remains unavailable to Pakistanis. An elected government is about to complete its term and a number of constitutional amendments have strengthened parliament and handed more rights to the provinces. But at the local level Pakistanis have no representatives, leaving only inaccessible provincial- and national-level lawmakers to turn to for the resolution of their everyday concerns. The federal and provincial governments have come up with a string of excuses to avoid sharing power with elected representatives at the local level, including law and order, electoral rolls and passing the buck to the Election Commission. In Islamabad bureaucrats prefer to hold on to the city themselves. And in Sindh the issue has deteriorated into a political mess, with opposing camps trying to implement or block local government elections based on their own narrow concerns. Across the country, then, the root of the delay is an interest in power over democratic reform.

Monday’s Supreme Court hearing on the subject brought up another problem that persists even when local elections are held. In Pakistan, cantonment areas are now more than just cantonments — they are real estate ventures. With plots originally owned by soldiers sold outside the military over the years, depriving cantonment areas of the right to vote effectively means disenfranchising millions of civilians. And yet, despite the issue having been brought up in parliament, no legislative work has been done to allow them to participate.

It is this foot-dragging that has also created space for the SC to weigh in on yet another matter that should be the domain of lawmakers. The holding of local government polls and the issue of allowing cantonment residents to vote are matters properly debated in parliament and executed by the federal and provincial governments, and have been discussed in the assemblies several times. But the lack of movement on this front has become one of the glaring failures of this administration, as has been the case during previous democratic set-ups, yet again allowing the current Supreme Court to opine on matters of governance. But at this point, holding local elections seems logistically impossible until after the general elections. With all its rhetoric as well as its real work to strengthen democracy, including some historic constitutional amendments, movement on the local bodies could have become a lasting legacy for the current elected administration. But like many others before it, it has failed to make government responsive to the people at the level at which it most closely affects their lives.