By Salman Abid
Democracy is always linked with strong grassroots political and social institutions. Unfortunately, in Pakistan, we have faced a serious crisis of democracy especially at the grassroots level. And not always because of military dictators. Recently the Punjab coalition government run by the two largest political parties Pakistan Muslim League (N) and Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) have unanimously passed a proposed amended bill of local government 2010 in the name of democracy and decentralization in the country.
As soon as the bill of local government amendment was passed with popular vote in the Punjab Assembly, the government immediately issued orders to end the term of existing local government, elected representatives including nazims. It also issued orders to create an election authority to conduct polls and appointment of administrators in place of nazims. The ruling party also rejected 26 amendments move by the opposition members. The new act, which carried some 21 amendments, has given the provincial government the authority to instantly abolish the current setup, which otherwise could have survived till the arrival of the new elected local government. Interestingly, the provincial government gives 180 days (six months) to the provincial election authority to announce and finalise the local government election in Punjab. After this process, the local election authority will take minimum ninety days for announcement of the election schedule.
Democratic forces, including civil society organisations, fear the provincial local election authority and its members would be appointed by the provincial government; thus it would be under the political control and influence of provincial government which clearly means it would be difficult to ensure transparency, independence and impartiality of local government election credibility. In the Charter of Democracy both the parties showed strong commitment to strengthen an independent election commissions and not the local election authority. Now the decision is totally different and not only violates the charter’s essence but also the democratic norms and values of the state.
The amendment of the section 179-A of LGO stated that under this amendment for the purpose of holding the next election to the local governments, district council, tehsil council, town council and union council shall stand dissolved with immediate effect. The government shall appoint a person (government official) as an administrator for a local government to perform functions and exercise the powers of nazim, naib nazim and council under the ordinance of any other law. The appointment of the administrator in place of nazims is against the spirit of article 140-A of the constitution which provides each province shall by law establish a local government, devolving political, administrative and financial responsibilities and authority to the elected representatives. These amendments finally shift powers to bureaucracy as opposed to elected representatives and weaken the democratically elected public representatives and their councils at the grassroots.
PPP has also supported the proposed bill of the local government 2010. It did raise its concerns in the assembly but stated that it is supporting the bill due to President Zardari’s decision of strengthening and protecting democracy. Interestingly, the PPP Punjab and the parliamentary party both criticised the local government’s amended bill 2010.
Unfortunately, the PML-N has destroyed the concept of decentralisation and minimised and restricted the powers of the elected public representatives. Actually the Punjab provincial government wants the local council structure and not the local government as the third tier of the government. The local council will totally be dependent on the provincial government with very limited powers of the council. The Punjab government is already facing serious criticism on the governance model based on bureaucracy and non elected representatives from different political forces and intelligencia. The PML-N has always been critical of the local government ordinance 2000-01 and strongly stated it will not support the dictator General (R) Pervaiz Musharraf Model .On the other hand, it wants to restore the Gen (R) Zia ul Haq 1979 model of local governance in the name of democracy.
Another serious concern in the delay and demolition of the local government structure is that the provincial government wants to avoid the local government elections. Or maybe the provincial government wants more time for further consultation processes regarding the new ordinance of local government and also for the process of formation of the local election authority.
In either case conflict will arise between the coalition partners on the appointment of the administrator at the district level; the PPP will insist on 40 percent sharing formula within the government which the PML-N might find difficult to accept.
Unlike other democracies in the world, we still insist on the centralised approach as compared to decentralisation. Another major problem in Pakistan is that every political institution — like local government, provincial government, central government and all elected representatives — just focuses on development funds and not in development in its true sense. No one is interested in legislations and policy making issues .If the situation remains as it is now, how will the systems run in this country.
Our political elite should realize that the country is facing serious crisis of governance and especially local governance .They should understand that without empowering the local democratic political institutions like local government, nation cannot resolve its inherited problems.