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Long-term interest and Local Government !

Column of the Day - ASHFAQ REHMANI

Pakistan is a federal republic comprising four provinces: Sindh, Punjab, Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. These are divided into 111 districts, 397 towns – middle-tier administrative units – and 6044 unions, the lowest tier of government, with each union comprising a number of villages. Local government elections were due in 2009. However, following the 2008 general election, the new provincial governments decided to postpone local elections in order to amend the local government system.

Some provincial government coalition members in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa are considering changing the local government structure altogether; others like the Muttahida Quami Movement party in the Sindh coalition government would like to keep the existing system from 2001. These reform processes constitute an opportunity to draft new election-related arrangements in line with the 18th Amendment to the constitution, which limits presidential powers and gives other institutions greater autonomy, and the June 2010 ratification of the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights, a UN treaty which commits signatories to ensuring the political and civil rights of individuals.

To date, those amendments have still largely not been made.

The result is that no firm dates have been set for local elections. Instead of the people’s representatives running local governments, decisions are being made by an interim civil bureaucratic administration.

This cannot last. It removes citizens’ right to turn to local council members and mayors to deliver basic social services and provide local political accountability. This lack of accountability and the absence of citizen participation at the local level represent a grave threat to Pakistani democracy.

This does not mean that the previous local government system was necessarily a good thing. It has rightly been criticised for being about the consolidation of power, designed to serve and benefit various military regimes. Each of the military rulers throughout Pakistan’s history established elected local government systems which served to consolidate their power base.

In contrast, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, civilian prime minister from 1973 until 1977, opted to install local bureaucrats – civil servants – to administer local affairs. Prime Ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif’s governments between 1988 and 1999 did not revive elected local government either. Many argue this was done to prevent the emergence of grassroots political power and therefore continue undisputed national and provincial leverage on policies at the local level.

The local government reform process and preparation for elections is interminably slow and tortuous. It has been argued that provincial governments are delaying holding local elections in order to avoid their political power being tested mid-term, particularly given the challenges of a struggling economy, rampant insecurity and post-flood reconstruction. However, elected local governments could be a stabilising force for the country, establishing governance accountability and increasing a culture of participation.

The local government reform process has been driven since 2009 by provincial executive branches. The provincial assemblies have played little to no role in the development of policy or legislation. And legislative committees responsible for local government may exist, but they are sidelined.

One particularly important aspect of the new legal framework for local government will be the election laws. This is a highly sensitive matter needing broad-based political support if the laws are to be accepted as legitimate by all political forces.

According to domestic and international groups working on election reform in Pakistan, significant issues to address include (but are not limited to): candidacy requirements, criteria for constituency demarcation and the participation of political parties. It is critical that there be opportunity for stakeholders to be consulted on these matters and to have meaningful opportunity to review proposals. These stakeholders include the ruling parties, the opposition, the election management body, civil society and the public.

The respective provincial legislatures need to pass legislation based on such consultation. This legislation needs to be fully compliant with the constitution and Pakistan’s international legal commitments, including those related to elections, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Democratic practices must be strengthened at all levels in Pakistan if there is to be effective civilian governance. The next few years may be difficult, but failure to address democratic reform at the national and local levels is in nobody’s long-term interest.

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