ROVER’S DIARY: Democracy hangs in the air —Babar Ayaz - Tuesday, January 18, 2011

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Despite the fact that the unions do not provide any social services or household services, by virtue of their frequent face-to-face interactions with their community they appear to play a key role in representing citizens’ concerns and resolving specific problems with higher levels of government

Trajectories of tragic events in Pakistan have sidelined some of the fundamental political issues of the country. One of the most important issues, hardly discussed by politicians and the media, is the revival of the local government system. Without an effective and participatory local government system, democracy hangs in the air. That is precisely one of the reasons that the democratic dispensation in this country is thrown away easily by undemocratic forces.

Unfortunately, history shows that all military dictators have relied heavily on the elected local governments for support because they strike down the provincial and federal representative system. On the other hand, whenever there has been an elected democratic government in the country, they have disbanded the elected local governments. With all its faults, the local government system as given by the Musharraf government was a good initiative. Undoubtedly, the major defect in Musharraf’s local government system was that it was imposed from above. While the provinces were not given their due rights, the federal government imposed the system from the top. Under this system, two elections were held and people were more or less happy because they thought their local problems would be tackled through locally elected councillors.

But the main problem was that the bureaucracy, which was made subservient to the local nazims, was not happy and the provincial and National Assembly representatives did not like the emergence of a local leadership, even though, in many cases, the local nazims and councillors were their own scions or protégés.

The local government laws have now to be passed by the provincial assemblies for their respective provinces. This means that they will have to agree to share power at the local level. That is the reason that, in spite of having over a year, they have not moved to pass the bill. Initially, in Sindh, the MQM was pushing for the Local Government Bill but its senior coalition partner wanted to cut the powers of the local government and its control on the bureaucracy so that the provincial government had more say in local matters. The result is that the law has been shifted to the backburner. Other provincial governments are also not very enthusiastic about it.

In another survey conducted by A C Nielson, it emerged that the provincial leaders and the bureaucracy were also concerned about the “devolution of authority for policing; discretionary powers in by-law enforcement and administrative control over land registry and revenue collection. In many regions of the country, this has accentuated existing tendencies towards the elite capturing the local governments. This contributed to a deterioration of law and order and increased crime.”

The elected provincial officials and bureaucrats have openly supported the idea of abrogating the 2001 Local Government Ordinance (LGO) and returning to the 1979 LGO. They base their case on the problems caused by bureaucratic subordination to local elected politicians, deterioration of law and order and the inability of local governments to enforce laws and regulations.

The media, which claims to be the champion of the common man’s problems, is not raising the issue as it is overwhelmed by federal and provincial government issues. According to a survey, ‘Media coverage of election reforms and local elections in Pakistan’, conducted by an NGO [Intermedia with the support of Democracy Reporting International (DRI)] last year, the local government issues remained a low priority for the media. They analysed the coverage of electoral issues by 25 national and regional newspapers and five local language TV channels in all four provinces.

The findings of this survey were that “almost all relevant news items were reported on the inside pages of newspapers, indicating the low level of importance attached by newspapers (or institutional capacity to report). There was more coverage in south Punjab and Sindh and lower levels of coverage in north Punjab, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan. Prime time TV was blank on the local elections issue with almost no coverage of electoral reforms and the local elections in all four provinces,” that “local language media were relatively more responsive, while the space given by the English language media was very limited,” that the “majority of stories were based on press releases with very few news generated by the reporters themselves,” that “there were very few editorials, commentaries, analyses, features or investigative reports. There was no attempt to educate the media consumers, merely to provide routine information on the subject,” and that “few news stories addressed the upcoming local elections; the vast majority addressed the performance of the present/outgoing local administrations. The election process and electoral reforms had almost no coverage.”

The A C Nielsen survey findings show overwhelming support for maintaining control of service delivery in local governments. Only a small minority support federal or provincial control. This finding contradicts statements from some provincial authorities that the “general public” wants the local government system to be rolled back. The survey results suggest the exact opposite: “In the provision of household services, the tehsils did not fare well — the respondents favoured a strong role for the union councils. The survey results suggest that citizens want more localised service provision, which would lend support for going back to local governments for each urban place by reactivating the town and city governments. Another policy-relevant finding was with respect to the role of the union councils. On almost all measures of accountability, access and responsiveness, they received the most positive mentions of any level of government. Despite the fact that the unions do not provide any social services or household services, by virtue of their frequent face-to-face interactions with their community they appear to play a key role in representing citizens’ concerns and resolving specific problems with higher levels of government. This might also help to explain why the respondents did not feel strongly about the need for direct elections to districts and tehsils; in contrast, there was a large majority in favour of keeping the direct elections to unions.”

As the major political parties that are in the federal and provincial government feel that their popularity is dwindling owing to the incumbency factor, it seems they are reluctant to expose themselves to local government elections, lest they lose most of the tehsil and union councils. But they fail to recognise that most of the common man’s priorities, as the survey shows, are of gutter and garbage management, safe drinking water, improved education system, better roads and healthcare facilities. And these priorities are in that order. These basic amenities can be best delivered by an elected local government.

Simultaneously, elected local governments will provide a sound foundation to the hanging democracy of the country, mobilise the political parties’ local workers and galvanise them to counter extremist elements in their constituencies — only if the party line is clear on this most dangerous issue faced by the country.

The writer can be reached at

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