If Pakistan wants an effective governance system based on the public interest, the top priority must be a strong system of independent and integrated local governments.
Many countries around the world are currently trying to make governance more efficient through the decentralization of political, administrative and financial powers. In this context, local governments have priority in matters of governance.
Important political actors in Pakistan have been reluctant to learn from best practices around the world or from our own past mistakes. Instead, we keep repeating the same mistakes. There is also great resistance to the idea of a decentralization system, despite the 18th amendment to the constitution which laid the foundation for a more decentralized system of governance.
Admittedly, there have been several attempts to reform the local government system. There has been a concerted effort to take significant powers away from provincial governments and hand them over to local governments. The constitution was amended to ensure that empowered local governments at the expense of provincial governments had the support of the federal government. However, provincial governments have resisted and currently control most of the functions that were once sought to be delegated to the local level.
Elections to the local government institution were not held regularly. Even when the election was imposed on the executive by the higher judiciary, local government institutions struggled to exercise legislative autonomy and control funds. Several institutions initially created at the local level ended up under the control of provincial governments.
Unfortunately, the political class is not ready to abandon traditional ideas of governance or relinquish control of resources to allow meaningful restructuring of the local government system. No wonder there is a lot of dissatisfaction and criticism of governance across the country. The ruling elite might wish Pakistan well, but its lack of commitment to an autonomous system of local governments is a huge obstacle. This equates to mistrust and dissociation with people at the grassroots level.
A serious dialogue is needed in the context of the local government system in Pakistan between the different parties. Since the governance system is currently suffering from extraordinary problems, extraordinary remedies are needed. I propose that we agree on the following basic principles:
Firstly, Article 140 of the constitution should be amended to introduce a provision that local governments will be required to hold local elections within 120 days of the expiry of their term or its premature termination. If a provincial government fails to organize local elections within the time allowed, it should be penalized by imposing a reduction in the resources made available to it as part of the decision of the finance commission. The local level must be assured of having sufficient resources to be controlled by it.
The political class is not ready to abandon its traditional ideas of governance and control of resources to ensure a desirable restructuring of the local government system.
Second, the federal government must not abandon local governments to provincial governments even though local government is a provincial subject. The Federation must ensure that local elections are held on time and that the system is not paralyzed.
Third, to ensure continuity, consistency and accountability at the local government level, the federation should monitor the performance of provincial governments by allowing the formation of a provincial system under articles 140, 7 and 32 of the constitution . If the performance is not satisfactory, the Federation must take the appropriate corrective measures. The mandate of federal, provincial and local governments should be the same. It may be four or five years. Elections at the three levels must take place simultaneously at 120-day intervals.
Fourth, provincial governments should not be allowed to deprive local governments of their control over appropriate resources and monopolize development budgets. The distribution of the development budget should in principle be linked to the local government system.
Fifth, the local government system should have a clear formula for allocating resources from provinces to districts. A clear and transparent allocation of resources should be linked to population, geography and deprivation. The provincial government should be required to spend 30% of its development budget through local governments.
Sixth, the country should have a clear policy on local government elections. All elections must take place directly, including elections for reserved seats. Elections should be held on a party basis.
Seventh, women’s representation should be ensured through direct election at 33%. Political parties should be required to issue at least 5 percent of tickets for general seats to women.
Eighth, provincial finance commissions should be strengthened and able to play an effective role in making the system accountable at the provincial level.
Ninth, the provincial government must not form an alternative system in the province to replace or supersede elected local governments. They should not create any authority or corporation to control local government functions.
Tenth, the big city system at the provincial level should be different from other cities. The governance of large cities requires greater autonomy and greater accountability.
Eleventh, provincial governments should refrain from forming too many political and administrative structures. In principle, below the district council, there should be trade union councils and their presidents should be members of the district council.
Twelfth, as many citizens as possible should be involved in the system to ensure adequate citizen participation in decision-making.
Thirteenth, constituency boundaries must be permanent for at least ten years. Frequent demarcations attract the charge of gerrymandering.
Fourteenth, the administrative framework of local governments should be determined and permanently attached to the system.
Fifteenth, elected representatives of the people should have more authority in local governments than civil servants. The police should be placed under the control of local governments or a community policing system should be introduced.
The author is a political analyst and ED Institute for Democratic Education & Advocacy.