Notes from the Field

Local Government Critical in Pakistan’s 2013 Political Landscape

July 11, 2012

Throughout Pakistan’s history, the issue of local government – and whether it is elected or bureaucratic – has been used by various regimes to advance their own agendas. The 18th Amendment of the Constitution passed by the National Assembly of Pakistan on April 8, 2010, requires that Pakistan’s four provinces (Sindh, Punjab, Balochistan, and Khyber Pakhtunkwa) “establish a local government system and devolve political, financial, and administrative responsibility and authority to the elected representatives of the local government.” The many supporters of this amendment hope that it will bring government decision-making closer to citizens and prompt local officials to be more responsive to their needs and demands.

However, despite the legal requirement that each province hold local government elections by the end of the year, no elections have been scheduled for 2012. To date, only Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkwa (KP) have developed the local government laws which will determine the structure and operation of local government in each province and which are a necessary pre-cursor to any local government election. Sindh and Punjab are in the process of drafting new local-level laws, but this process is subject to considerable negotiation among the coalition partners in Sindh, and on the willingness of the ruling party to devolve authority in Punjab. Given progress to date, and the political negotiations still to come, the word on the streets of Islamabad is that these long awaited local elections will not be held until after general elections which are expected to take place around March or April 2013 (or November 2012 at the earliest).

So why the delays? As with all reforms, the process is inherently political and the re-establishment of local government in Pakistan will reallocate both power and resources from the provincial level. It will also create a new tier of elected administration, and reduce both the administrative authority of the provinces and their control over the fiscal resources allocated for local administration and development.

Contention over the division of power between the tiers of government – and between the bureaucracy, the military, and elected representatives – has been apparent throughout Pakistan’s history. Pakistan inherited a strong bureaucracy that governed at the local level without elected representatives as part of the British colonial legacy, and it has since alternated between elected and bureaucratically governed systems. Various military dictatorships have instituted local government systems to legitimize their own regimes with the veneer of democracy, and civilian governments have advocated against them, opting instead to govern at the local level through bureaucratic administrators. Civilian governments have been wary of sharing resources with another tier of government, aware that even if they hold an absolute majority at the provincial level, they may not have one at the district level.

The first system of elected local government was established in 1959 by General Ayub Khan and was defined by the election of 10 people and the appointment of five to the Union Council, the lowest tier of local government, all known as “Basic Democrats.” In addition to their role in local government, the Basic Democrats constituted the Electoral College for presidential elections and the members of the National Assembly, thereby ensuring that the group responsible for electing the president was comprised of politicians that Ayub’s regime had cultivated at the local level. When General Ayub relinquished power in 1969, the system was abolished. Under the regime of Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto which followed, the administration of local affairs was once again managed by local bureaucrats. When General Zia-ul-Haq seized power in 1977, he re-established elected local bodies and local government elections took place in 1979, 1983, and 1987 on a non-party basis. When the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) came into power in the general elections of 1988, they again abolished the local government system. Between 1988 and 1999, local affairs continued to be managed and controlled by administrators rather than elected representatives despite attempts to revive the elected local government system, partly due to strong political polarization, partly due to the dissolution of the Bhutto and Sharif governments mid-tenure, and, perhaps significantly, due to the control that bureaucratically governed local affairs provided for the central government.

In 2000, shortly after coming to power, Pervez Musharraf’s military government developed the Local Government Plan, or “Devolution of Power Plan, which aimed to decentralize administrative, political, and economic authority to locally elected local governments and “empower the impoverished.” However, as with the elected local governments that came before it, political parties were prohibited from participating in local government elections, and the system was criticized by some for creating a veneer of government legitimacy, without increasing accountability at the local level, and for increasing the control of an unelected military government.

A major issue of contention for the implementation of elected local government has been the exclusion of political parties from local-level politics. Historically, local government elections in Pakistan have been conducted on a non-party basis, which has both undercut the influence of established political parties and contributed to a strong culture of personality politics from the local to national levels of politics. Having been excluded from political processes at the local level since the first local government elections held in 1958, political parties do not have the party infrastructure or local-level influence to effectively navigate the intricacies of the local political environment, and have accurately assessed that they have limited ability to influence political outcomes at the local level. As a result, parties tend to not have a developed or loyal base of supporters. Over most of Pakistan, and particularly in rural areas and poorer sections of cities, as in most developing countries, people rarely vote as individuals; they vote in informal blocks representing patronage systems, primordial ties (clan, tribe, or caste), or in some rare cases, religious sect. These blocks form the basis of political organization and activity at the local level. Women in many parts of the country are often discouraged or actively prevented from voting at all.

In non-party elections, campaign financing becomes an individual exercise, and local donors and sympathizers invest in candidates as opposed to political parties. Those elected have then had relatively unfettered control over development and administrative funds. In the absence of party monitoring and oversight, individuals cultivate their own networks and support bases which the political parties had little option but to rely on when party-based elections were eventually held for national and provincial assemblies.

The issue of local government remains a hot issue in Pakistan. Many argue that for Pakistan to transition from a procedural democracy to a substantive democracy, the ruling coalition/parties in each province need to move beyond making a rhetorical commitment to elected local governments to pushing forward local government elections. Local government is likely to be a critical feature of the 2013 political landscape, but what the landscape will look like as yet remains unclear.

Rosita Armytage is The Asia Foundation’s governance advisor and Umair Javed is a program officer, both in the Foundation’s Pakistan office. They can be reached at rmacdonald@asiafound.org and ujaved@asiafound.org, respectively. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual authors and not those of The Asia Foundation.

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