Pakistan with and without Local Government

Spearhead Analysis – 22.10.2013

By Shemrez Nauman Afzal
Research Advisor and Consultant (Security and Governance)
Spearhead Research – Pakistan

An overview of the Local Government SetupLocal government institutions, known as “local bodies” in Pakistan, are essential grassroots organizations that perform necessary administrative functions at the municipal level, devolving power and authority to the district, sub-district and community level. The importance (if not success) of these institutions in Pakistan was so profound that even though two non-party-based elections took place for local bodies since their inception in 2001 under the Musharraf regime – and despite the fact that they became largely defunct after 2008 as the National and provincial assemblies reasserted their political power – these institutions now continue to operate under a bureaucratic methodology, and their ultimate control has been vested in the provincial government as per the 18th Amendment. Provinces like Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab chose to reinstate the “commissionerate” system – another remnant of the colonial era when a bureaucratic appointee of the government would be responsible for the affairs of a district – rather than keep the democratic nature of the local bodies system alive, and hold elections to the post(s) of Nazims (mayors) for various districts.

Despite the fact that local bodies have continued to function as non-representative and centrally controlled bureaucratic entities (instead of evolving into the kind of organizations that would suit the effective administration of each district), the offices and powers of the district Nazim have been re-invested into that of the commissioner or deputy/assistant commissioner (depending on size and population of district) who now administer and control the various departments created under the 2001 local government system: with separate, district-level institutions for revenue collection, law and order, health, education, development, civil defence, etc. By forcing representative officers of local bodies to become dysfunctional during and after 2008, and by installing bureaucratic officers to district-level mayoral posts instead of holding representative elections according to the right of democratic franchise, the post-2008 democratic setup in Pakistan – especially the political parties who vowed to restore real democracy to Pakistan and rid it of dictatorship – eventually ended up combining the new local bodies with the age-old, arbitrary and unrepresentative “commissionerate” system, thereby asserting centralized control over the districts from the national (and after 2010, when the 18th Amendment was promulgated, provincial) bases of government and administration.

The importance of local government institutions – especially representative institutions that are answerable to constituencies as small as districts and sub-district units such as union councils and “talukas” – cannot be underestimated for a developing country like Pakistan. Democratic representation at the national or provincial level does not imply that constituents of any district or National Assembly constituency have direct and ready access to their legislator or parliamentary representative, and have even less voice when it comes to targeted, pro-public legislation being sponsored or passed by any given legislator for any given constituency. The fact that the National Assembly passes laws for the entire country (save federally administered areas such as FATA) and provincial assemblies legislate for entire provinces, the legal and administrative development of particular districts – each of which have distinct characteristics and varied degrees of problems which cannot be compared to even the adjoining district in most cases – has suffered immensely. After 2008, and particularly after 2010, districts have been administered by bureaucratic administrators such as commissioners who have been appointed by the provincial government, and as such, attention has been given to pressing issues in a certain district whenever notice of such issues was brought to the provincial government, and more importantly, whenever the provincial government chose to act on resolving such problems and issue instructions to the relevant commissioner and his senior staff to proactively resolve the issue brought to their attention. As a matter of fact, the local government system was designed to avoid this long-winded system of complaint resolution, so that local constituents can approach local bodies, which would have local representation according to modern democratic norms such as designated seats for women as well as minorities, and in the end, the problems of these local constituents would be solved because the district government administration would have been elected by – and eventually, answerable to – the constituents of that tier of local government. However, the entire experiment of local governance in Pakistan, at the district and sub-district level, was disemboweled, with its representative and democratic elements removed, and a disfigured composite of governance was created with the old “commissionerate” system installed above the local bodies that were created after 2001. This was done by the post-Musharraf regime for a variety of reasons: the most important being that it was a dictatorial action that needed to be done away with, regardless of how important or beneficial it was to the local population of any district or sub-district constituency; and also, because it was assumed that the Nazim system was designed to erode the traditional power of the two major political parties of Pakistan (when it was mainly former legislators and representatives of these political parties who occupied many Nazim positions at the district and sub-district level).

Pakistan faces an acute governance problem not only because its system of governance is outdated, or because it has only two tiers of government instead of the complete three (national, sub-national/provincial, local), but also because it faces post-modern threats and problems while it remains equipped with pre-modern, 20th century tools at its disposal to deal with such threats and problems. Pakistan still employs criminal and civil penal codes inherited from the British, with minor revisions, and even the civil society of Pakistan – sometimes considered the true representation of Pakistan and the voice of reason amidst the clamor and racket of vested interests – is aware that in order for a non-governmental organization to get registered, the concerned entity has to refer to the Societies Act of some year in the 1800s in order to be permitted to operate an NGO in Pakistan today, in the 21st century. Local government in semi-developed urban areas is important for maintaining law and order, ensuring continued and equitable development, creating opportunities for all constituents, and developing robust and effective methods to deal with other problems that the district or sub-district unit faces. Under the 2001 local government system, local bodies were autonomous even in terms of revenue collection/generation and allocation for spending: the most important and powerful tool of any level or tier of government. At the same time, local government in lesser-developed areas is of the utmost importance in bringing these areas at par with other districts in the province at least if not nationwide, in giving a voice and platform to local constituents who have no faith in the system of governance or in the authorities or apparatus of government, and most importantly (such as the case of Malakand division and Swat district shows) in creating robust and effective local institutions that can deal with the threats to law and order, peace and security, lives and livelihood of the local constituents, as opposed to being government institutions that are passive bystanders to those who overturn the writ of the government to such an extent that military force has to be used to restore peace and order, and most importantly, the writ of the state.

What many politicians and political leaders in Pakistan do not understand is that local government systems – whether uniform in a nationwide or province-wide sense, or unique to each district – are the very systems which extent the writ of the state, the presence of the government and the real-life implementation of law and policy to the citizens of the country, and especially to the marginalized constituents of society, who live in backward, rural areas, and who have no access to state facilities and have an extremely poor standard of living. It is the responsibility of national and provincial assemblies to legislate: to create and promulgate laws, and most importantly, to update these laws and bring them up to date with the modern era; because Pakistan cannot effectively face 21st century problems with 20th (and sometimes, even 19th) century tools and laws at its disposal. As provincial governments vow and make promises and announcements to hold local government elections – and then announce postponements and delays for one reason or another – it is vital at this point, critical even, to introduce representative local government systems all over the country so as to deal with a variety of problems being faced by the country: whether it is economic development, rising crime (as in Karachi), threats of terror attacks (particularly in KP province, but persistent throughout the country), providing equitable employment opportunities, extending the writ of the state to tribal areas, and improving Pakistan’s health and education indicators. These are only a few ways in which even provincially-unique local government systems can start addressing the problems faced by the people of Pakistan, with the adequate support of the provincial government in terms of resources and legislation, and of the national government in terms of guaranteeing federal support as and when required for the particular case of a district. 

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