The stage is set

September 27, 2020

Against the backdrop of criticism and reservations on the new governance system, the provinces are working on their plans to hold local government elections

A local government system is the “third tier of governance” after the federal and the provincial governments and is expected to be the most efficient one for service delivery. However, the situation has been far from ideal in Pakistan; despite the fact that the federal and the provincial legislatures are primarily supposed to legislate rather than carry out development activities, members of the National and Provincial Assemblies have been guilty of resisting transfer of power to local governments. It is common practice for them to retain control over development funds to be able to execute development projects in their constituencies and appease their voters. For this very reason, they do not surrender their funds and powers to be passed on to the local governments, even for those at the village level.

Last week (September 24), the Supreme Court of Pakistan observed that the federal and provincial governments could not lawfully exercise the powers of the local governments. These observations were made during the hearing of a constitutional petition, seeking devolution of powers to local governments, filed by Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf.

Looking at the history of the country, one realises that the establishment of local governments has never been a priority of elected governments at the Centre or in the provinces. The local governments have flourished only during periods of dictatorship.

The incumbent PTI government came to power championing the slogan of transferring power to the grassroots level and giving due share in development funds to various administrative units. The party had cited the fact that in the absence of local governments, most of the development funds were spent on big cities while others were left out.

For an equitable distribution of resources, effective and powerful local government systems are a must, and this is the spirit of the relevant clause of the Constitution of Pakistan. For this purpose, it also proposes Provincial Finance Commissions so that they can distribute resources among districts in accordance with consistent formulas and parameters.

Article 140-A of the Constitution 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 government.”

Against this backdrop, the provinces are working on their plans to hold local government elections. The local government system in Sindh was the last one functioning (till August 31). The Sindh High Court has asked the government to hold new elections within 120 days; but the government does not appear ready to go ahead until the provisional results of 2017 Census are corrected.

The focus right now is on the Punjab, the largest province in terms of population and financial resources, which seems prepared for the elections. The Punjab government, after rolling back the Punjab Local Government Act (PLGA) 2013, passed two Acts: Punjab Local Government (PLGA) Act 2019 and the Punjab Village Panchayats and Neighbourhood Councils Act 2019, to “ensure real fiscal and administrative powers to the local level.” Elections under PLGA 2019 will be on party-basis and those under the Punjab Village Panchayats and Neighbourhood Councils Act 2019 will be on non-party basis.

Since these Acts introduce new models of local governance that have not been seen in practice, they are being discussed and analysed at length, on theoretical and sometimes speculative grounds. At the moment, there are no functional local governments are in the Punjab. Matters relating to local governance are being looked after by civil servants working under the administrators appointed for this purpose.

“Regardless of reservations, the good thing is that the stage is set for local government elections in the Punjab. The people must make the most of it”, says Salman Abid.

As per a perception survey on Local Governance in Pakistan, carried out by Democracy Reporting International (DRI) – a German non-profit working on rights, governance and decentralisation – 47 percent of the respondents think that the local governments are responsive to their concerns, whereas 53 percent think that the local governments are better than other tiers of government. The reasons cited by the latter include local representation, experience of local government representatives in dealing with local issues and accountability. A large number of the respondents, 42.3 percent, were not aware of the changes in local government laws in the province.

“Regardless of reservations, the good thing is that the stage is set for local government elections in the Punjab. The people must make the most of it”, says Salman Abid, a political commentator and expert in local government system.

He says in the first phase elections will be held for Village Panchayats and Neighbourhood Councils whose size has been reduced to make it a more local affair.

As per law, he says, these units will receive development funds directly.

“Another positive of the system”, he says, “is that the candidates to reserved seats for women and minorities, will be elected directly instead of being picked by other councillors as was the case previously.”

Under the new system, a union councils will be elected by around 5,000 people rather than 20,000-30,000.

Muhammad Basharat Raja, the minister for law and parliamentary affairs, tells The News on Sunday (TNS) that the spirit of the new laws is that the MNAs and MPAs will not exert control over the local government funds although they can still propose schemes under the Annual Development Plan (ADP) for their constituencies. When asked about the tentative dates for elections, he says that the process has been started, though the exact dates have yet to be announced.

“How much of the plan translates into action is yet to be seen”, says Zahid Islam of Sangat Development Foundation (SDF) who has reservations on representation of women and abolition of reserved seats for youth and labour.

He says that despite its slogans for youth empowerment, the PTI has abolished their reserved seats in addition to fixing the minimum age for contestants at 25.

“If the minimum age for voter is 18, the minimum age for contestants should have been brought down as well,” he says.

There are several other points that need to be examined critically. As per the assessment of Punjab Local Government Assessment by DRI, the district tier has been removed. This makes the deputy commissioner powerful because he issues directions to local governments at tehsil level. There is risk of enhanced bureaucratic oversight. Section 27 of the Act is also controversial as it states that the provincial government can take away functions from the local government and can use the provision to reassign them as well. There will be CEOs to run day-to-day affairs but nazims or mayors will have no say in their selection which will be done by the provincial government. Tehsil nazims and mayors of metropolitan cities will be elected directly.

The situation is complicated. On one hand, there are glaringly obvious problems in the new system; on the other a further delay in holding the local elections will likely result in estrangement especially amongst those living in remote and underdeveloped areas. Only time will tell how the system fares once it goes into practice. It is hoped that it can be improved in response to governance challenges that may arise, suggestions and critique by experts in the field, and most importantly perhaps, the feedback of the citizenry.

The author is a staff reporter and can be reached at [email protected]

The stage is set