This article was published in Dawn on October 12, 2021 and is available at the following link
Nothing underscores the superficiality of Pakistani democracy better than the continuing absence of elected local governments across the country. In our 74 years of existence, elected local governments have functioned only for about 39 years.
At present, there is no elected local government in any of the four provinces or the federal capital. The only exception are the Cantonment Boards for which election took place recently. There are varying explanations for this state of affairs but the real reason seems to be a weak commitment to the local government system.
PTI-led provincial government prematurely dissolved the local governments in Punjab when they had hardly completed their half term apparently because PMLN-controlled most of the local governments since the last election in 2017. Although the Supreme Court declared the dissolution illegal and directed the restoration of the local governments, the provincial government is reluctant to comply with the court order. On one hand, the local governments are legally restored to complete their four-year term in December 2021 and therefore fresh elections cannot be held. On the other hand, the local governments are practically non-existent as provincial government staff does not allow elected LG officials to enter their offices and function normally on one pretext or the other.
The elected local governments in Balochistan had completed their term in 2019 but so far, despite the lapse of two and a half years, fresh elections could not be held because the subject is subjudice before the Balochistan High Court.
Most of the municipal and local development matters fall under local governments and a majority of civic issues can be adequately addressed if local governments are provided with needed powers.
Ahmed Bilal Mehboob
Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa local governments also completed their term in 2019 but fresh elections were repeatedly postponed on the pretext of cold weather, COVID-19 or some other issues.
The term of Metropolitan Corporation Islamabad (MCI), led by a PML-N Mayor, expired in February 2021. When PTI government came into power in August 2018, the relations between the federal government and MCI strained and an enquiry was instituted by the federal government against the mayor leading to his 90-day suspension. The Islamabad High Court, however, overturned the suspension and reinstated the mayor. The federal government also significantly curtailed the mayor’s power and ultimately the mayor resigned. The fresh election for MCI is yet to take place under an amended Islamabad Local Government Act.
The local governments in Sindh completed their term in August last year. The law requires that fresh elections be held within 120 days but even after 13 months, an election is not in sight. Initially, Sindh government refused to demarcate local governments unless results of the population census 2017 were officially notified. After the federal government notified the 2017 population census, the Sindh Government challenged the correctness of the results and as the case is subjudice, the Sindh Government refuses to proceed on the preparation for fresh local government elections till the court decides the matter. In the meantime, the federal government has committed to hold a fresh population census before the 2023 general election because of the objections raised by the Sindh government and several political parties and it is quite likely that the Sindh government will refuse to proceed on local government election preparations till the next population census. This, in real terms, means that the next local government election, at least in Sindh, may not be held till after the next general election scheduled in 2023. The chances are that the other three provinces and the federal capital territory may also take cues from Sindh and successfully defer the local government election till after the 2023 general election.
As the above state of local governments indicates, the provincial and even federal governments are not willing to devolve their powers and financial resources to the local governments. The provincial governments try their best to avoid local government elections on one pretext or the other and if it becomes inevitable to hold elections like it did last time due to the deadline given by the Supreme Court, the provincial governments try to clip the powers of the local governments by enacting a weak and vague local government act.
Most of the municipal and local development matters fall under local governments and a majority of civic issues can be adequately addressed if local governments provided with needed powers and resources are elected and installed in time. It is equally important that provincial and local governments learn to operate within their defined spheres even when they belong to opposite political parties.
It is important to consider including a detailed chapter on local governments in the constitution of Pakistan where the outline of the power, function and broad election time table is defined. India experimented initially without, and later with, such a constitutional provision, and their experience indicates that local governments functioned much better after the inclusion of a more detailed provision on local governments in the constitution.