Empowered local governments could mean genuine democracy

Empowered local governments could mean genuine democracy


Pakistan has a long tradition of elected governments at the district level and below going back to the British colonial period when a carefully planned system of local government was introduced for the first time.  Since local governments comprise people of a locality or a town, they understand local issues better than federal and provincial governments that are focused on more macro-policy and systemic affairs. 

However, local governments can also contribute effectively to local development and train people for elective government positions at the provincial and federal level if these institutions are allowed administrative and financial autonomy.

In Pakistan, different systems of elected local governments were tried by different governments but they always shied away from empowering them. They use them as their subsidiary agency, but deny them sufficient administrative and financial powers and resources for undertaking the community welfare and social development of their choice.

When it came to power last year, the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) government questioned the performance of the local government system it had inherited from the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN) government in Punjab, Pakistan’s richest province, and decided to replace it with a new system.      

For the first time, the new local government law in Punjab has assigned real administrative and financial powers and development funds to local government systems. 

Dr. Hasan Askari Rizvi

The new local government system, launched this month, deviated from the old system by abolishing district level councils that dated back to the British period.  The new system has two tiers.  In the rural areas, it will have elected village councils (panchayats) and above them, the tehsil council.  There will now be 22,000 panchayats instead of 3,281 Union Councils under the old system. In the cities too, there will be 2,400 neighborhood councils, with 182 municipal committees. 

The mayors and chairmen of the municipal committees and tehsil councils will be elected directly on a party basis.  However, the election at the lowest levels, that is, panchayat and neighborhood councils, will be party-less. Elections to new local bodies are to be held within one year, and for the interim period of up to one year, local bureaucrats will look after the affairs of local government departments.

For the first time, the new local government law in Punjab has assigned real administrative and financial powers and development funds to local government systems. 

The importance of elected local government in a democratic political system is undeniable. It is in fact, the first step on the democratic ladder in any country.  However, local government in Pakistan often gets bogged down in the free-for-all struggle for power among competing political parties. So it is no wonder that the PML-N, now Punjab’s main opposition party, wasted no time in opposing the new system. 

It is an understandable opposition however, because the district and union councils in the old system were dominated by the PMLN. With the exception of one district, all district chairmen were PMLN loyalists who used their political clout to the advantage of that party. Now, it has lost that advantage, and has quickly begun championing the cause of the abolished local government system. 

During its days in power however,  the PMLN had extended shabby treatment to those very local governments.  

If the PTI government is able to fulfil its promise of turning the new local government system into a powerful governance system, it will be a major departure from the past.

There is some hope for such a development because the PTI has experimented with reasonably powerful local bodies in Khyber-Pakhtunwa province, where it is in power for its second provincial term. This is in sharp contrast to southern Sindh, where local government has very limited financial and administrative powers. In southwestern Balochistan, the term of local bodies has expired which had limited powers to begin with and suffered from a shortage of resources. 

The people will judge the performance of new local government on the basis of its work for welfare, which was the heart of the PTI’s campaign ethos.  Only time will tell if the government’s new experiment with local government will be the start of genuine representative governance at the local level, or a repeat of the betrayals of the past.

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