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Monday Apr 02 2018

Why effective devolution remains vital for our democracy

Given the current political upheaval in the country, and with general elections just around the corner, the current state of the recently set-up local governments are not getting any attention. Yet, an effective local government system, however, remains vital for deepening the culture and institutions of democracy within our country.

The current local government system needs further strengthening for it to meaningfully address the basic needs of ordinary citizens. Well-functioning local governments can help prevent elite led capture and allow marginalized and otherwise disgruntled segments of society a greater say in governance. A heterogeneous and large country like Pakistan needs several layers of local governments to help bring social services closer to the grassroots level and to address inter-ethnic and regional tensions.

Yet, Pakistan’s experience with devolving power under both its military regimes and democratic governments remains lacklustre. Passage of the 18th Amendment in 2010 managed to secure substantial provincial autonomy, but then all provincial governments remained hesitant to let their own power devolve further to lower tiers.

The Supreme Court had to intervene and compel provinces to hold the local government elections in 2015. While these local governments have a few years to go before they face another election cycle, the future of devolutionary process remains uncertain. Current local governments do not have well-articulated, constitutionally mandated safeguards for continuity and procedures for elections. Many observers have pointed to a centralising dynamic reasserting itself, as the general elections draw nearer, and mainstream party machines shift their focus on winning seats in the national and provincial assemblies. Now, if opposition parties take over the provincial assemblies in the coming general elections, this could create major stumbling blocks for local governments, which are mostly aligned to the ruling provincial parties at present. We would thus see major tensions erupt between provincial governments who yield significant power over local governments, as we see in the ongoing tussle between Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) dominated cities of Karachi and Hyderabad, and the Pakistan Peoples Party dominated provincial assembly in Sindh.

The fact that the 18th Amendment explicitly recognizes the need for local governments and the active interest taken by the Supreme Court in the local government system is encouraging. However, there is a pressing need for several reforms to make local governments more effective.

Devolution will only take root in all four of Pakistan’s provinces if there is a central coordination mechanism that can negotiate a level of consistency across the four provinces, without undermining the principals of provincial autonomy provided by the 18th Amendment. A coordinating mechanism could, for example, ensure that all local governments devolve power to similar administrative levels and that local governments are appointed for similar tenures.

Local government acts must be amended to allow reserved seat candidates to be elected directly rather than remaining dependent on patronage or bound to the agendas of the politicians who nominated them. Much more effective mechanisms are needed for screening of candidates elected on reserved seats, to prevent factory and landowners winning seats meant for workers and peasants.

The enormous capacity limitations of existing local governments must be addressed to improve the performance of municipal governments. Local governments currently have immense unmet financial needs as well. Creating Provincial Finance Commissions is a step in the right direction, but it is possible to also redirect discretionary MNA and MPA funds to local governments. Provincial governments should also give more taxation powers to local governments. Larger cities can generate additional resources by directly issuing secure bonds. This process of devolving fiscal responsibility to local governments does need to be managed with caution. Financial devolution must be accompanied by financial oversight. It is thus important to supplement existing accountability mechanisms, using third-party and citizen audits of local governments. Provincial local government acts should consider recreating platforms for enabling community engagement with local governments, such as the Citizen Community Boards formed under the Local Government Ordinance 2001.

Unless local governments are reformed and given adequate resources and authority, large segments of the citizenry will remain marginalised by centralist and patronage-based political forces, which are democratic only in name.

Ali is a development anthropologist. The op-ed is adapted from the author’s recent report, “Devolution of Power in Pakistan,” published last month by the United States Institute of Peace in Washington, DC.

Note: The views expressed in the article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Geo News or the Jang Group.

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