Democracy at the local level By Geoffrey Weichselbaum & Katherine Vittum - Saturday, March 05, 2011

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WHILE Pakistan has made significant gains in deepening the democracy that its people worked hard to achieve in 2008, democratic institutions continue to require serious reforms in order to empower citizens and ensure sustained civilian rule.

Many reforms are outstanding at the national level — such as the mechanics of devolving administrative powers and building the policy capacity of the provinces. This will take time.

Perhaps most urgently, local elections have not taken place since 2005, and the local government system is in flux. Provinces have been slow to prepare new legislation for local governance and how elections will take place at the local level. These are urgent issues for Pakistan’s emerging democratic credentials.

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. To date, those amendments have not been made, and in the instance they have been made, are not operational.

This has meant that there have been no firm dates set for local elections. Instead of the people’s representatives running local governments, decisions are being made by an interim administrative set of arrangements. This cannot last. The lack of accountability and 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. Perhaps this has tainted the very concept of local democracy in Pakistan.

Gen Ayub Khan established the first system of elected local government in 1959. ‘Basic Democrats’ were elected at the local government level and constituted the electoral college for presidential elections and Members of the National Assembly. As such they became the political backbone to Ayub Khan’s rule.

Gen Ziaul Haq, who seized power in 1977, also established elected local bodies through the 1979 law. They provided a power base for his regime by bypassing provincial authorities. Gen Zia’s local government system faded away soon after his death in 1988.

Shortly after taking power in 1999, Gen Pervez Musharraf presented the Local Government Plan as a part of his reform and reconstruction agenda. This plan is often referred to as the ‘Devolution of Power Plan’; — the system being reformed today at the provincial level.

In contrast, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, prime minister from 1973 to 1977, opted to install local bureaucrats (civil servants) to administer local affairs rather than revive the local governments. Likewise, due to strong political polarisation between 1988 and 1999, during the two terms of Benazir Bhutto’s and Nawaz Sharif’s governments, local affairs were run and controlled by administrators instead of locally-elected representatives.

A revival of local government was attempted but never materialised because the federal governments were dissolved in the middle of their tenures. It is also believed that the increased control through the deputy commissioners (powerful civil servants) heading district councils was convenient for those governments. For members of the national and provincial assemblies, the system offered leverage over district policies, which was advantageous for securing electoral support.

The 2010 18th Amendment to the constitution retained the local government system that had been strengthened by constitutional amendments under President Musharraf. Article 140A of the constitution requires provinces to “[…] establish a local government system and devolve political, financial and administrative responsibility and authority to the elected representatives of the local government”.

The local government reform process and preparation for elections is interminably slow and tortuous. It has been argued that provincial governments are delaying the holding of local elections in order to avoid their political power being tested mid-term, particularly given the challenges of a struggling economy, rampant insecurity and the post-flood reconstruction.

However, for Pakistan to further its democratic advancement, it is imperative that elected local governments be established and elections held as soon as possible. Elected local governments could be a stabilising force for the country, by 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. Legislative committees responsible for local government may exist, but they are sidelined. Thus representative decision-making about local government does not appear to be taking place.

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. Significant issues to address include: candidacy requirements, criteria for constituency demarcation, and the participation of political parties.

It is critical that there is opportunity for stakeholders to be consulted on these matters and to have meaningful opportunity to review proposals. This should 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 and debate. 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). All of these factors will help to ensure the acceptance and sustainability of the future local government system.

Democratic practices must be strengthened at all levels in Pakistan if there is to be effective civilian governance. The years ahead may be difficult, but failure to address democratic reform at the national and local level is in nobody’s long-term interest. Provinces need to urgently adopt precise timetables for the passing of local government laws, facilitate an inclusive debate on local government reform, promulgate legislation and hold local government elections.

Geoffrey Weichselbaum is co-director of Democracy Reporting International (DRI) and Katherine Vittum is DRI Pakistan country director. DRI is a Berlin based group promoting political participation.

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