This article was published in Dawn on June 03, 2019 and is available at the following link
Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) led provincial assemblies in Punjab and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa provinces, which together constitute 70% of the entire country’s population, passed local government bills in April.
Since politics in Pakistan is surrounded by a thick fog of controversy these days and new issues keep cropping up on a daily basis, the new local government system manifested in new laws will probably attract very little public and media attention. Since the laws were passed in ‘unnecessary haste’ without any meaningful debate in the assemblies especially in Punjab, awareness about the laws was further constrained. Sadly, the new law heralded the premature termination of existing local governments which had about two years remaining in their terms. This unnecessary high-handedness also clouded the good features of the new law.
PTI governments have not been very successful in materializing many of their promises, but the passage of local government acts might just be the first meaningful step taken by the PTI towards fulfilment of their election campaign ethos. This begs the question: Just what is so revolutionary about local government laws?
Prime Minister Imran Khan termed the passage of the new laws a ‘revolutionary step’. And though any party head will laud actions taken by their party, a close examination of the laws do indicate they have the potential of revolutionizing governance at the grass roots level.
Traditionally, local governments in Pakistan had been ineffective and devoid of requisite financial resources as well as real authority and the new laws address two traditional weaknesses of the local government system.
For the first time in our history, new local government laws have provided for the direct election of mayors and heads of local governments. This is a truly revolutionary step which will transform the entire complexion of local governments. In the past, mayors or nazims were indirectly elected by a small electoral college. For example, the mayor of Lahore, the largest city of Punjab province with a present population of around 11 million, had an electoral college consisting only of about 274 members in 2016.
For the first time in our history, new local government laws have provided for the direct election of mayors and heads of local governments. This is a truly revolutionary step which will transform the entire complexion of local governments.
Ahmed Bilal Mehboob
A mayor indirectly elected by such a small electorate never had the moral authority that a directly elected one could possess. Indirect election was the key reason why local governments were generally marginalized and not given their due powers in the past. By contrast, imagine the moral authority of a mayor of Lahore who was directly elected by over 5 million voters after running an election campaign that reached every nook and corner of the city. Will it be possible to marginalize such a mayor or the local government headed by him or her? In all likelihood, the answer is no. This singular, unique feature of the new local government act will be the iron-clad guarantee of the legitimacy and effectiveness of new local governments. It is entirely possible that provincial governments could find an excuse to wrap-up local governments altogether, but it will not be possible to marginalize them which is the case right now.
Another strong feature of the new local government act is that the provincial government has committed a minimum of 26% of its general revenue receipts towards allocable funds to local governments. Usually, local governments in Pakistan have been cash strapped which renders them ineffective. A guaranteed funds’ allocation will lend sustainability and enhance local governments’ effectiveness.
Adopting a proportional representation (PR) system for local government elections is yet another important innovation. Councillors in various local governments except the lowest levels of a village or neighbourhood will be elected through a PR system. Votes will be sought by political parties or electoral groups based on a list of candidates submitted to the election commission. Votes will be cast for the parties and electoral groups and will get the number of seats in proportion to the votes secured. This system will strengthen political parties at the local level and encourage councillors to devote their efforts to the entire area of local government and not the local area which elected them.
This new two-tier local government system focuses on smaller administrative units instead of districts in the upper tier, and villages and neighbourhoods instead of union councils in the lower tier because smaller units are naturally more manageable.
There appears to be great promise on the horizon for new local government laws, but the success of this will reveal itself soon enough. The real test however, will be in the faithful implementation of the law and in resisting pressures to reverse these innovations.