Naseer Memon | December 1, 2013 | Published in The News.
After keeping millions on tenterhooks for weeks, the Supreme Court finally relented to agree with the Election Commission’s views and reluctantly relaxed timeframe to resolve imbroglio on the local governments’ elections. Election Commission’s earnest iterations and the repeated resolutions adopted by the National Assembly and the Sindh Assembly created an ambience where further obstinacy would have triggered another unpleasant clash among the state pillars.
Although Supreme Court was blamed for obduracy, the unrealistic timeframe was initially suggested by the concerned provinces themselves. Impracticality of the timelines belatedly dawned on the provinces and shifting gears on the election dates engendered an impression that local government elections are being evaded once again. It prompted Supreme Court to prod provinces to remain steadfast with the committed election schedules.
The provinces had to adopt a similar hasty course for legislation on local governments. Indolent response and dilatory tactics of provinces constrained judiciary to impose timelines for the legislation. The provinces consequently embarked upon reckless legislation and still filing rough edges with frequent amendments.
These episodes also denuded the sheer lack of professional capacity and political commitment of various actors that blighted the electoral process of local governments. Had the Election Commission and the provincial governments demonstrated their seriousness, no other institution would have drawn justification of encroaching upon their domains.
Preoccupied with other pressing priorities, they would have conveniently skirted the local governments’ formation. The Punjab government paved way for another judicial intervention by denying party-based elections in the Local Governments Act.
Article 140-A of the Constitution prescribes political devolution in unequivocal terms. In spite of a popular demand and a constitutional obligation, the Punjab government opted for non-party based elections and eventually had to bite the dust. After the court orders, the PML-N government is obliged to rectify the law but only after losing its political grace. Another similar gaffe has been committed by curtailing number of seats for women.
Local governments are not only a constitutional obligation but also a logical extension of parliamentary democracy. For about four years now, democracy has been limping without local governments.
The previous regime of Pakistan People’s Party wasted three years and did not take any serious steps towards formation of the local governments. In Sindh, the party and its allies remained engaged in endless negotiations on the local government law. Pakistan Muslim League-N held the throne of Punjab for last five years but they also remained glued to status-quo. Both leading parties ostensibly relish democracy and cherish their democratic credentials yet committed a willful default on sharing democratic dividends with citizens.
The PPP rightly boasts 18th Amendment as a great triumph of democracy, yet it did not demonstrate the same spirit for decentralising powers from provincial headquarters to districts and lower tiers. Over the time, provincial headquarters have emerged as new power centres imitating Islamabad while treating their own districts.
Unelected dictators always avidly promoted local governments, however for the sake of their dictatorial ascendency. It is sheer lack of sagacity, if not political dishonesty to exalt dictators for their ruse of strengthening local government system. In fact, they would create a string of fiefdoms to devolve powers and resources to a coterie of their loyal thus cementing their regime at lower level while abstracting provincial governments which is an indelible constitutional tier of the federation. What is, however, imprudent on part of elected regimes is that in a fit of concentrating their rule in provincial headquarters, they did not like to unbundle their stack of powers.
Elected regimes have unfortunately their own appetite for powers and propensity of ruling the subjects rather than serving them. Predominantly composed of extravagant rich who splash millions to get elected, the sordid elite consider it their legitimate right to recover their investments with markup. As a corollary to that, the legislators have relegated themselves to market vendors trading contracts, jobs, postings and transfers. Political parties have thus made the mockery of democracy and actually buttressed the illegitimate authority of elite in the country.
Key state functions e.g. providing basic services, livelihood and employment opportunities, security, law & order and justice have thus been delegated to the elected representatives, compelling citizens to pay allegiance to these local power lords. Since a local government system will invariably decentralise basic services and grassroots level development, the elected representatives are reluctant to let them exist, let alone flourish. But if it becomes inevitable, they will employ all means to bring them in their family fold by installing their progenies on local thrones.
Large size of constituencies and prohibitively exorbitant electoral campaigns make it affordable only for filthy rich to contest elections for national and provincial assemblies. This elite capture has jettisoned the lower and middle class segments from mainstream politics. Local governments are a small aperture for politically marginalised citizenry, particularly for women, working classes and minorities to acquire some space in political architecture of the country. Denying this space is a denial of democratic dividends to those who sacrificed their lives for decades for restitution of democracy.
Political parties will lose moral ground and legitimacy to rule without integrating these marginalised groups. Not allowing local governments to function and gain roots would be tantamount to chopping the branch on which political parties have nested. This unpardonable remiss will take its toll by rendering democracy an unrealised dream.
In the long run, a sustainable local government system will bestow sustainability to a fledgling democratic dispensation. Devolving basic services to lower tiers will relieve legislators from a superfluous onus enabling them to veer their focus towards higher level of policy formulation and legislation. Legislators’ penchant for infringing into the domain of service delivery has created a chaos in the society.
Revival of local governments and their smooth functioning will help restore eroded confidence of masses. Crippled and debilitated by a deluge of problems in everyday life, hapless citizens can be provided considerable succor even with a sop of basic municipal services. They have forgotten quality life services and beseech for just enough to breath. If elected governments mercifully allow a fraction of local governments to function, it will guarantee their own longevity and survival. Ultimately it can invigorate an anemic democracy in the country.