All Politics is Always Local

No feudal will abolish the feudal system and no dictator will attempt to strengthen local bodies as we have seen in the past. Responsibility falls on the democratically elected party in power to take another bold step to empower masses through strengthening local bodies in Pakistan and have fair and nonpartisan elections at local levels.

Democracy involves participation of citizens at the grassroots level where leaders are trained, parties are formed and individual voters are engaged in the political process. We have not realized the relevance of this golden rule in Pakistan until recently and after 60 years of federal grip on provincial governments and people the process of devolution of power has finally started. But it still needs to strengthen the local government system.

Democracy is inherently devised as a bottom-up system where citizens participate in the political process, test candidates, and monitor the government in action for possible malpractices or injustice. The public also has access to information in a real democracy where they are engaged in deliberations in public forums at local levels. In Pakistan, however, political and military governments have tried their best to isolate public at elementary levels and focus on national or provincial level politics. This unfair practice has effectively isolated the rural poor who never feel part of the political process through locally elected representatives. The process thus has become top-down with a strong patronage and participation of the elite and upper class who primarily have provincial and national aspirations for leadership opportunities.

All military dictators in the country tried their own form of devolution including Ayub Khan, Ziaul Haq and Pervez Mussharaf but ironically their objectives were highly vague and abstract with a built-in vested interest. Ostensibly it was claimed that that these measures were introduced to induct new blood in politics, to provide access to marginalized citizens and to induce accountability in politics. However, the hidden objectives were either to divert attention from national issues to local politics or to prolong dictatorial regimes. Whatever the goals, the process added mistrust of the rural poor on the political system and eroded their belief in democracy at large.

The infamous Basic Democracies System introduced by Ayub Khan had vested political interest in minting a new political structure in the guise of democracy and empowering citizens at local levels. The almighty Field Martial, through the process, devised an ingenious process, creating his own royal party at local levels and got himself elected indirectly through the 80,000 elected representatives. All possible tactics were used to attain this goal including coercion, intimidation and bribery.

Although several times devolution has been tried with different objectives, Pervez Musharraf introduced a complex structure to reform the local government system. The whole edifice was reshuffled with declared objectives to improve participation, provide public access and abolish judicial powers of civil servants and administrators. Following were the objectives of the process as seen by the National Reconstruction Bureau in in 2001:

  1. Decentralize the administrative authority to the district and lower levels
  2. Allow public participation in decision making
  3. Improve efficiency and introduce incentives for efficient employees
  4. Foster collaboration between government departments to improve service delivery
  5. Avoid delays by giving decision making powers at district and tehsil levels
  6. Improve administrative and financial management practices
  7. Redress public complaints against administrative malpractices
  8. Ensure proactive public participation in community related development work.

While establishing a three-tier system of local government based on District, Tehsil and the foundational level of Union Council, the current local government system has separated judicial and administrative structures. It also transferred the political power from Deputy Commissioners to Nazims and Naib Nazims who are elected by the people. There are also monitoring mechanisms built in the system to have check and balance on administrators, judiciary and the elected representatives.

In the current local government system District Councils have emerged as powerful entities responsible for elementary and secondary education, health services, agriculture and intra-district roads. Towns and Tehsils are responsible for local roads, streets, water supply, sewerage and sanitation services. Representation of minorities and women has also been included in the new structure.

Despite its intentions to achieve “noble” objectives, the current system of local bodies is not as efficient as thought to be. Inefficiency of civil servants, lack of collaboration between local bodies, and the predominant influence of local politicians has to be considered for any future reforms.

In a surprise move not expected from an elected party in power, local bodies were dissolved and administrators were appointed last year with a promise to hold elections “when the law and order situation allows.” The whole system of local government is in a state of suspension now.

The real meaning of devolution lies in strengthening mechanisms of local governance through elections and transferring power to locally elected representatives. The prominent writer and human rights activist I .A. Rehman correctly identifies the importance of establishing functional local governments in his article Afraid of Devolution? In his opinion, unless we build the local political system on strong grounds the real devolution is meaningless.

“…fair governance is impossible until power is devolved from the provinces to local government institutions. …Any delay in the transfer of power to the provinces will also delay the empowerment of local bodies and communities” I.A. Rehman reiterates.

Devolution of power cannot be achieved unless we establish institutions empowering people politically at all levels, not just provincial and national levels. No feudal will abolish the feudal system and no dictator will attempt to strengthen local bodies as we have seen in the past. Responsibility falls on the democratically elected party in power to take another bold step to empower masses through strengthening local bodies in Pakistan and have fair and nonpartisan elections at local levels.

Now that the 18th constitutional amendment has initiated the process of transferring power to provinces, the next step should be to take a serious look at the local government structure and improve it. As they say all politics is local!

(From Viewpoint Online)

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