In The News

Beyond Pakistan’s Devolution Dogma

October 28, 2009

With the end of the four-year term of the second cohort of elected local government leadership in mid-October, the rancorous public debate over the future of Pakistan’s famous Devolution Plan has moved, like much else in the country, to the superior courts. Supporters argue that elected local representatives must continue to exercise powers until new elections are held. Opponents want empowered provincial governments to legislate, a step that may include a complete roll-back of the plan.

The Devolution Plan, introduced nationwide in 2001 in some 100-plus districts in all the four provinces, fundamentally changed the architecture of the state at the provincial, district, and sub-district levels. The vast bulk of major province-administered social and economic services, such as land revenue administration, education, health, works construction, community development, and agriculture, were shifted to districts. Participation of women and minorities was enhanced through guaranteed seats in various local elected fora. Formula-based fiscal transfers to districts were introduced and provinces given minimal discretion to influence the budget-making of local governments.

Most importantly, in a complete departure from the local government reforms of the past, almost all power in the districts now resided with strong elected leaders. Several statutory provisions strengthened the autonomy of the office of the Nazim, the new (indirectly) elected head of the district, and curtailed the powers of provincial Chief Ministers, the elected executive heads of the four provinces, to direct elected local leaders.

Eager to support General Pervez Musharraf during the early, heady years of “national reconstruction,” multilateral and bilateral donors showered this reform effort with funds, assistance, and laudatory reports. Civil society also welcomed more grassroots participation, especially the enhanced role of women.

Such radical changes were bound to create big winners and losers. The Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), the ethnic party in Sindh that has a strong base in urban centres, was the big winner. It could now completely command Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city, and several other major districts and towns.

Provincial chief ministers, ministers, civil servants, and a large majority of legislators were, however, unhappy because of the dramatic reduction in their authority and sphere of influence. They were especially bitter because a corresponding devolution of federal functions to the provinces did not occur as promised.

The stage was therefore set for a major power struggle between provinces and local governments. After the installation of elected governments in 2003, several changes were immediately introduced (by Musharraf’s recalcitrant provincial allies) to withdraw some of the functions of the districts back to the provinces. Many other planned reversals were, however, stalled by Musharraf.

Eventually, keen to protect his pet project in the face of opposition from provincial governments, Musharraf changed the constitution in 2003, making it impossible for provincial legislatures to amend the law without the consent of the President. However, once he was forced out, local governments faced bleak times.

Today, three provincial governments – of Punjab, Balochistan, and NWFP – and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), the leading partner of the Sindh government, are staunchly opposed to devolution. In fact, they allege that the Devolution Plan was actually a “Demolition Plan” that increased corruption and weakened government.

These challenges were expected. Local governments, much loved by Musharraf, donors, NGOs, many technocrats, the MQM, local councilors, an assortment of relatively powerless politicians and, reportedly, U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke, have faced grave uncertainty since the Musharraf regime was routed from power following elections in February 2008.

Looking back, the legitimacy of the reforms was always in doubt. It was widely held that the Musharraf regime, like past military governments, used local governments to attempt to create pliable constituencies for itself. Several features of the devolution design, including indirect elections for the powerful office of the Nazim and the inability of parties to formally field candidates, were widely used to manipulate elections across the country. Circumscribing the provincial powers to amend local government laws with a constitutional amendment was also a clear departure from the federal spirit of the Constitution.

Any empirical and unequivocal assessment of the impact of the devolution plan on the delivery of government services would have helped clarify the debate. Unfortunately, high-quality independent studies documenting clear evidence of success are unavailable. There is general consensus, though, on various capacity and design issues – indirect election of Nazims, for example – that contributed to the relative absence of unambiguous progress.

Provincial governments have asked President Asif Ali Zardari to allow them to postpone the next elections, appoint civil servants answerable to the provincial Chief Executive, and administer district affairs until new laws are introduced immediately after December 31, 2009, when the requirement of presidential assent lapses.

Meanwhile, supporters of the Devolution Plan, the weaker group, are busy arguing their case in seminars to those already converted, and to the wider public through the media. Appeals to the judiciary are also being made through legal challenges. The plan’s opponents, presently much stronger because of the political power they wield, are also busy quietly drafting revisions in government secretariats and waiting for legal room to introduce the amendments. Abuses, aspersions, and civil suits are exchanged frequently. There appears to be no middle ground.

Such partisanship should have been avoided. There is a shared vision in Pakistan to empower representative local governments within a framework of provincial autonomy and legislative oversight. There are also many shared interests – representation through party-based elections, increased representation of women, expansion of the scope and autonomy of local governments compared with 1979 boundaries, and increased citizen participation in local schemes – that can be easily secured in any future revision.

More constructive engagement with genuine democratic political forces of the provincial governments, especially by leading NGOs, which are presently mostly partnering with Musharraf-era forces, is clearly the need of the hour. Fanatic devotion to the 2001 details of the plan should not close this window of opportunity. Devolution is, after all, a goal, not a dogma.

Zubair Bhatti is The Asia Foundation’s Director of Programs in Pakistan. He can be reached at zbhatti@asiafound.org.

View all posts by Zubair K. Bhatti

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