Spearhead Analysis – 27.05.2014
By Shemrez Nauman Afzal
Research Advisor and Consultant (Security and Governance)
Spearhead Research – Pakistan
Two things are extremely important for the political stability of any country: the devolution of power to the grassroots level, and economic growth through fiscal responsibility and visible socioeconomic prosperity that is available to the general public.
Without the above two fundamental characteristics of a nation-state, the democratic nature of a country’s political system can become subject to destabilization of varying degrees.
Devolution of power as a slogan is all well and good for election manifestos, but in real-term policy implementation, it implies the creation and functioning of autonomous civil service bodies at the town and municipal level. These institutions have small constituencies whose issues and problems they address, which are relatively manageable because of the homogeniety of the constituents. Centralized governments are both known and prone to be either insensitive towards, or unaware of local problems; which can thus fester and transform into larger-scale problems at the provincial or even federal level. These problems can relate to law and order, such as the specter of terrorism (which can also trace its roots to the absence of democratic institutions in FATA since 1947), to health issues and epidemicssuch as polio, which has been acknowledged by the WHO to be in the epidemic stage in Pakistan. Local governments – especially if they are democratically elected – simply by virtue of proximity to the people, are better postured than Federal or even Provincial representatives to address their grievances. Administrative power makes it impossible for democratic representatives to ignore the constituency, especially if the latter has the power to recall its administrators – with the bureaucracy being in control of the country’s administration. Those who govern Pakistan have rarely been answerable to the general public. Local government bodies are also in a better position to end the sense of alienation between the people and their government. Out of the four provinces so far only Baluchistan has been able to enact provincial-level legislation that devolves power to local government institutions. The other provinces – with more population and even more problems – have yet to establish this third, most important tier of government. And it is also not certain whether local-bodies elections will be held in a democratic manner or not. Moreover, the definition of democratic characteristics and its measures of effectiveness have yet to be defined by the provincial legislatures. So far only Sindh has the latest legislation which it can either implement or improve upon to create modern local government organizations of the state at the city, town and municipality levels.
Highly relevant to all three tiers of effective democratic governance are also fiscal responsibility and efficient management of the economy. Fiscal responsibility does not only mean progressive taxation or austerity measures. It also means expanding the existing tax-net without further burdening the masses which cannot pay taxes; along with greater spending on human and infrastructure development- particularly sustainable improvement in visible infrastructure and state services- as opposed to debt servicing and avenues of government spending with little to no economic returns. Even the salaries of government employees should not fall in this category, since they are the human resource of the state, and their remuneration should be commensurate to their level of service and to the purchasing power of a citizen of a rank equivalent to them in society. Only fiscal responsibility can guarantee economic growth, because it inherently implies the implementation of policies that improve existing critical infrastructure inevitably leading to sustainable socioeconomic progress. While the incumbent government claims that it emphasizes trade with the international community over aid, their performance so far does not show this emphasis being translated into action. The government must realize that pushing the country and the economy forward on borrowed money is not a sustainable policy for the long run – even though successive governments have continued to thrive under such policies. With the definite impact transferred to successive governments, and the inevitable underdevelopment passed on to the general public. Pakistan needs policies that increase tax collection from the existing tax net of the country. This means that tax collection increases without the addition of new taxes or tax brackets, and that taxpayers are given indirect incentives (such as better state services) in addition to direct incentives (such as the tax amnesty scheme that was launched by the existing government). While a 15% increase in tax collection is a welcome sign, it still does not fully realize the potential of Pakistan’s existing taxpayer base. This is not just because the tax base does not truly reflect the total amount of the population that can and should pay the tax, but also because those who do end up paying taxes are not being incentivized. While they fulfill their responsibility to keep the government running and to keep the state financed, the government and state in turn are not able to provide law and order, consistent electricity, cheap gas, and other such essential services to the taxpayers (and the general public).
The political temperature in Pakistan has been on the rise with the advent of this year’s summer: the PTI has taken to a rally campaign on the streets against the “rigging” of the May 2013 general elections. Detractors say that if these elections were rigged, then the PTI’s mandate in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is also questionable. The PML-N’s main slogans –received some sort of actualization, but not enough to keep the general public happy or to give the opposition reasons to think twice before going out on the street in protest. Although in Pakistan people rarely know what constructive criticism is, and if they do, then the government responds by acts of fear and reprisal rather than fixing their mistakes – one year is perhaps too less a time to measure the successes or even failures of a government that has a five year tenure to fulfill. But even the PML-N promised to fulfill some actions within its first 100 days of government, and people must have written editorials and articles August 2013 holding them accountable.
From the policy aspect, it is much more dire to think about what can be done. Local bodies elections and other measures (policies, legislation, etc.) to devolve power to the people at the grassroots level – in manageable administrative units – is a measure of good governance that can be achieved much sooner than fiscal responsibility. While local bodies can be established by provincial legislation, as has been done in Baluchistan, fiscal responsibility requires time, dedication and consistency, since any economic policy in Pakistan bears its results with a lag period of two to three years. This means better fiscal and monetary policies within the country, along with tightening control over prices (to reduce inflation), and external policies (like enhancing trade, reducing overall aid, will have to be followed for at least two to three years before the public actually benefits from them. The same goes for new power plants and service provision of natural resources such as natural gas. For the former, it would be much better for the government to keep the existing power supply units financed and fully maintained with fuel stockpiles, so that the existing generation capacity can be fully utilized. Policies to eliminate circular debt and restrain the power generation sector from being victimized by it again in the future should also be implemented and, in fact, enshrined in legal “stones” so that they continue to protect the general public and the economy.
Political destabilization can be staved off by effective governance and by devolution of administrative powers along with better economic policies that are effectively implemented. With other existential threats to the state like law and order, terrorism, radicalism, disease epidemics, and a myriad of other issues that require urgent attention at least the two basic fundamentals of political stability must be ensured by all governments – the federal and the provincial governments. This not only strengthen the writ of the State, but also ensure that it is extended to areas previously neglected. The opposition would be improving the government’s performance through the existing legal platforms by providing constructive criticism through novel legislation. But that is not their responsibility alone. To point out areas where the government can improve professional organization, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), along with the civil society (and the media too, if it can reacquire its image of a responsible and united institution) and the general public, must continue to play their role in a manner that serves the interests of all. The essence of national unity has, within itself, an embedded sense of national responsibility, which makes it incumbent on all patriotic people and organizations to forget parochial interests and come together for the greater good of the country, no matter who is in power and who would take the credit. In the end, it really does not matter who takes the credit for improving law and order, reducing inflation, or making daily life livable in Pakistan again: because the direct beneficiaries of these improvements will be the people of Pakistan.
When the government speaks of improving Pakistan’s “soft image” abroad, it should also pay equal attention to improving the state’s own image at home. Both the short term improvement (devolution of power) and long term progress (fiscal responsibility leading to economic growth and visible welfare gains) must be implemented instantly. One can lead to immediate effectiveness in government because of the obvious benefits of decentralized governance mentioned above, whereas the other requires consistency and continuity in order to yield benefits for the masses and can also be further improved upon to suit different situations faced by the economy at different points in time.