Dec 13, 2010

Politics of local government elections

The only solution to ineffective local governance is to conduct elections as soon as possible

By Salman Abid

The issue of local governance and its political implications remains mired in controversy to this day, a subject which seems to have been left to political wheeling and dealing. Perhaps a change has already set in; under the 18th Amendment, local governments are now a provincial matter.

Still, our political leadership seems to be disinterested in strengthening both the local government system and democratic practices at the grassroots level. The federal and provincial governments are under obligation to hold the elections of the local government as soon as possible, but contrary to this, they are using delaying tactics.

It is an irony that the local government system is being run through non-elected people. Since there is no consensus on elections at the provincial level, the Secretary Election Commission has flatly refused to announce the date of the elections. The task of holding elections and promulgation of local government ordinance are delayed under the pretext of consultation process.

One of the basic questions on this issue is whether the political leadership in the national and provincial governments really interested in the elections and has the political will to ensure a dynamic and vibrant system of local government in the country?

Those in the present government set-up, including coalition partners, seem to believe that local government system would be a hurdle in achieving their ‘interests’. The reason behind this understanding can be attributed to the fact that local governments’ inherent aim is to decentralise political, administrative, and financial powers from provinces to the district level.

Advocates of local government system flay provincial governments’ paying lip service to the issue of local governments. We have been witness to the clash between provincial and local governments on the issues of administrative and financial powers from 2001-2008. In addition to this, provincial governments of Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa have taken a step in the right direction by ensuring local bodies polls in the near future.

The government of Punjab and Sindh are striving on this mission by successive amendments to crush the prevailing system of local bodies. A committee set up by the Punjab government is reviewing previous and prevailing systems of local bodies. In October 2010, the Punjab provincial government passed the amendment in section 179 of 2001 ordinance which empowered the government to announce within 365 days the schedule of local government elections with effect from October 21, 2010. It is a reflection of Punjab government’s approach towards the devolution plan.

There is a disagreement on the formula of power sharing among the ruling partners. For example in Sindh, a battle is going on between MQM, PML-F, ANP, JUI, and PML-Q against the PPP to have larger chunks of power. The MQM is in favour of devolution and rejecting the wish of PPP to have 1979 ordinance back in force.

The same seems to be the case in Punjab where the PML (N) and PPPP negotiate power sharing while keeping the PML-Q at bay. In some districts, especially in rural areas of Punjab, PML-Q is in a position to oust both the PML-N and PPP. Balochistan and KPK have no better position on this issue.

Political parties stick to their guns by, on the one hand, condemning dictatorship and, on the other, ignoring their own undemocratic decisions, for example by putting hurdles in the smooth functioning of devaluation plan. In my view, military dictators support local governance system just to win over people’s support. We always expect from political parties and civilian government to come and strengthen the local accountable governance system through third tier of the government.

But, unfortunately, the political elite emphasises centralised approach against the concept of decentralisation. It is interesting to notice the political forces practically contradicting their stated commitments by appointing bureaucratic administrators on the district and tehsil level.

The article 140-A of the Constitution of 1973 reads as follows, "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 governments."

A significant principal laid down in the Charter of Democracy (CoD) signed by both the main political parties says that elected representatives will be give importance against nominations. This has been violated. But the real test to the claims of the political forces is to translate democratic norms into practices.

The delaying tactics of local government elections mainly supported by non-democratic people and our political elite serves their agenda in the name of democracy. Flood relief and rehabilitation activities have also suffered badly because of absence of local government system. The elected representatives of local government are made accountable and are within the access of common people at the local level.

Unfortunately, our political elite and political parties have learnt nothing from their own mistakes. The legislators in Pakistan are least interested in legislation. If every institution focuses things which it should not how can the system work? The present democratic forces should build consensus on holding local elections if they want to maintain credibility and legitimacy. The only solution to ineffective local governance is to conduct elections as soon as possible.

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