Ghosts of the LG polls past and future

And the elected acting like dummies


The Constitution of Pakistan establishes the state as a federal parliamentary republic, comprising four provinces: Punjab (95 million), Sindh (41.3 million), Balochistan (8.8 million) and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (23.3 million). Administratively, the country is divided into Districts, Tehsils (sub-districts) and Union Councils, with each Union Council comprising a number of villages, a UNDP report states.

The immense population that exists in this country cannot be truly governed by just the federal governments; hence we have the provincial government. Even then the distribution of power couldn’t be balanced therefore the need arose for the Local Governments (LGs)

The 18th Amendment to the Constitution of Pakistan has made it mandatory. Article 140(A) of the Constitution explicitly states, “Each Province shall, by law, establish a Local Government system and devolve political, administrative, and financial responsibility and authority to the elected representatives of the Local Governments.” Moreover, sub-clause 2 of the same article stipulates that “Election to the Local Governments shall be held by the Election Commission of Pakistan.”

The growth of media has brought about much awareness in civil society as to the importance of the local government for keeping a check and balance on the competence and liability of the provincial government.

Before we talk about the reluctance of the provincial governments on the LGs, let’s have a look at the ghosts of the past.

In 1959, Ayub Khan became the first dictator after a military coup and chose to install the LGs through the Basic Democracies Order 1959. The Basic Demands system was created as an alternative for voting rights and served as an electoral institution to elect the president and the legislative assemblies.

It created Municipal Committees (MCs) and Union Committees (UCs) in urban areas, which had to deal with various functions, such as social welfare, health, infrastructure. The MCs had limited taxation powers whereas the UCs had no fiscal powers.

The growth of media has brought about much awareness in civil society as to the importance of the local government for keeping a check and balance on the competence and liability of the provincial government.

In rural areas, the Union Council was the first tier, which elected their chairman who also served as a member of the Tehsil (sub-district) Council (TC). The job of the TC was to coordinate with the UCs. Below TCs would be District Councils (DC).

“The army needs a force within the people; hence they went directly to local bodies, bypassing the political governments.” Sajjad Mir, a senior analyst, said while talking to DNA.

Successive military regimes followed the same model. They promoted LGs but maintained control at the federal level, hence the LG was identified as an instrument for delegitimising the party system and provincial independence.

The Local Government Order 1979 expanded the LGs and empowered the deputy commissioners. In urban areas, it created four municipal governments, Town Committees, Municipal Committees, Municipal Corporations and Metropolitan Corporations. In the rural areas, a three-tier system of local government came into existence, Union Councils, Tehsil or Taluka Councils and District Councils.

The urban-rural divide was removed in 2001 as the Local Government Ordinance (LGO) 2001 established the LG at three levels: Union Council, Tehsil/Taluka Council and District Council levels. Union Nazims (mayor) and Naib (deputy) Nazims were directly elected by voters and became members of the District and Tehsil Councils.

The LGO transformed the political and social landscape as it bought more than 150,000 people into politics and created more than 6,000 councils.

It was a transfer of administrative, financial and development powers to the elected officials, making the government departments accountable to the District Council. District police chiefs became directly accountable to the District Nazims.

LGO 2001 also had reserved seats for women (33 percent), minorities, professionals and peasants, although women’s participation was constrained in some parts of the country by the local jirgas, tribal leaders, and boundaries.

Unfortunately, in Pakistan, most political parties believe in two-tier governance — federal and provincial. The third preferably could be the bureaucracy (which is taken care of by the national and provincial assembly members).

The problem is centralization of power. LGs are therefore far more important as they allow the direct participation of the general public. It’s directly responsible for maintenance of the cities and towns, conversely, our decision makers; security intelligence establishment, bureaucracy and political parties prefer to run the districts, tehsils and union councils by unelected administrators and commissioners.

During the previous democratic transitional phase 2008-2013, no provincial government conducted local bodies elections, but after much pressure from the Supreme Court, the elections are being held in phase all over Pakistan.

Senior analyst Ayaz Mir said while talking to DNA that the reason for the hiatus in the local body elections is simply the reluctance of our political leaders.

“Our political governments do not really like these LG polls. They cannot see their benefits being distributed to the locals like this” he said.

If not for the Supreme Court there would still have been many unreasonable claims by political parties for further delay in the elections, added Sajjad Mir.

“Political governments are stingy with their powers. But our constitution says that the provinces should hold LBs, and the SC force finally made them happen.”

The new LG ACT differs for all four provinces; the provincial assembly of Balochistan passed the LG Act in 2010, whereas the provincial assemblies of Punjab, Sindh and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa passed their LG Acts in 2013, in accordance with the 18th Amendment. In the face of a lack of enthusiasm and long discussions during the formulation stage, the passage of the LG Acts could be deemed as a noteworthy high point.

On the other hand, certain parts of the LG Acts of Punjab, Sindh and KPK have been challenged by the opposition parties in various courts.

Mehmood-ur-Rasheed of PTI highlighted this while talking to DNA.

“The government of 2008 saw that previously elected UCs weren’t working as per their requirements, therefore, they prematurely dissolved them. The delay was on the basis of the new legislation stating that the old one was corrupted.”

These Acts devolve sufficient functions and powers to the locally elected, but all four provincial governments have retained the authority to suspend or remove the heads of an elected LG. To top it all the functioning of the LG Fund is managed by the finance department and finance minister of the province.

Qamar Zaman Kaira of PPP emphasised this point while talking to DNA.

“The Act proves governments still do not want to give the devolution to the elected. I do not see much change in the future; the LBs representatives had more power in Musharraf’s era. The law has already been made upon which they are to be governed and that does not show much support for democracy.”

Term limits of the LGs are set by the LG Acts of 2013; Punjab provides a five years term, Sindh and Balochistan four years, and KPK three years.

The establishment of Provincial Finance Commissions (PFC) is provided by all four, headed by the provincial finance ministers. The local councils would receive allocations through the respective provincial finance commission awards and would have limited powers to impose taxes or exercise regulatory functions.

It is appropriate to highlight the importance of the grass-root democracy and seek commitment of the political parties at this time

This tends to subordinate the LGs to the provincial governments, allowing the chief ministers to remove an LG or head of council and appoint officeholders after the dismissal of council heads.

Limited autonomy to the local councils in terms of fiscal management and control over service delivery, revenue, tax and police departments is provided by the current Act.

If the local elections are to have any real meaning, provincial governments will need to ensure that newly elected local councils have sufficient resources and authority to address service delivery and development challenges in local communities. This will require provincial governments to recalibrate their approach towards the third tier of government. At present, their instincts seem to be to ‘centralise’ for the purposes of political expediency, rather than acting in the true spirit of the 18th amendment and empowering local government structures.

The failure of provincial governments to perform at the local level affects the poor especially. Only local authorities will be able to understand and make the right choices for their respective areas. It cannot be expected from the government to be “all seeing, all hearing”. People are able to trust their opinion leaders/heads of society, giving them an upper hand in resolving matters.

It is appropriate to highlight the importance of the grass-root democracy and seek the commitment of the political parties at this time. There is a need to create laws that better clarify the division of power and functions between the provincial governments and LGs.

Sajjad Mir hopes that the LG Acts will evolve as the elected and the provincial relations attain a new balance of power.

“The grass will definitely be greener one day, even though the government is reluctant at the moment, but in some years the local bodies will definitely be the voice of the people of this nation. Given the elected do not act like dummies”, he concluded.

Originally Published in Pakistan Today