Dent in democracy

By Dr S.M. Taha
July 29, 2009
THE federal and provincial governments have finally decided to replace the present local government system with the old magistracy one under a bureaucratic administration. 

It comes as a surprise to many that the two mainstream political parties who were elected on their pledge to bring back democracy to the country should agree to implement a system that is not democratic. 

The government is justifying its decision by using the excuse of poor law and order in the provinces. That is a lame reason. Can the government name a single district in Punjab or Sindh where elections are not possible due to a crisis of law and order? The intention here is not to criticise the government, but to point out the folly of a decision that may well have a pernicious impact on our fledgling democracy and political forces. 

But first, let`s take a quick look at the significance that the local government holds for good governance. Local government is considered to evolve from the grass roots. It is the only system of governance that deals directly with an individual — from the time he/she is born until death. 

Parliament is a lawmaking body that rarely comes into contact with the masses directly or on a regular basis. In Pakistan, the members of the national and provincial assemblies remain at a distance from the public. They have no connection with and do not in any way resemble the underfed, poor and miserable masses. The assemblies are populated by rich sardars, chaudhries, waderas and the industrial and feudal elite — and they are supposed to represent the masses. Although elected from constituencies, they are rarely found here after the elections as they prefer the national or provincial capitals. In contrast, the union councillors and taluka and district nazims have few options but to remain in the place from where they have been elected. 

The elected local government provides ample opportunity to the educated middle- and lower-middle classes to participate in the process of governance and development. In fact, elected positions, such as that of the union and district councillors, are deemed by the feudal, industrial and bureaucratic elite classes in Pakistan to be below their dignity to contest. 

Elected institutions at the local government level also reduce the development gap among the districts. If this system is allowed to continue and in fact become a permanent feature of governance, it will address two critical problems undesirable labour movement from the rural to urban areas and the creation of urban slums. Local governments are better placed to initiate an indigenous economic growth at the district level by restricting labourers to their own areas so that they may have greater social impact through strong community development. 

The elected local government is a grass-roots institution that can produce a critical mass of new young faces in the political process of Pakistan which, unfortunately, has been usurped by a handful of families since the time of independence. Elected local government is the only ray of hope through which we can strengthen our political institutions. 

Local government elections involve a minimum, affordable amount of money. Success depends on the candidates` availability and reputation in the locality. There is almost daily contact between the elected members and the voters. So the elected representatives of local governments are accountable to their voters and their performance can be monitored by those they serve. 

Let`s see things from the perspective of those who take a dim view of local government and intend to abolish it. The PML-N has accused nazims of being involved in corruption. Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani first said that administrators from the civil bureaucracy would replace the nazims for a year; but his position has not always been consistent. He said earlier that the local government was purely a provincial matter and that the federal government had nothing to do with it. But then he said that he wanted the same local government set-up in all the provinces and that he would talk to the president on the issue. 

On the election issue the federal government said that the provinces wanted a delay in the local government election because of the law and orders crisis in their provinces. 

Let us look at one of the main complaints which constitutes the corruption issue and the PML-N`s allegations against the nazims. The party may be right in casting doubts about the level of honesty among the nazims. But should this accusation lead to the abolishment of the entire system? Are all nazims corrupt? Have they failed to deliver at all? 

These questions must be addressed before the decision to dismantle a governance system is made. If we consider the corruption argument to be a valid reason to abolish the local government system, could not the same apply to other institutions known for their corruption? For instance, we all know that the police and judiciary are corrupt institutions in Pakistan. A history of corruption is also evident when it comes to politicians and the civil-military bureaucracy. Should we abolish all and replace them with a bureaucratic administration? The best approach is evolutionary if we want to strengthen democracy in Pakistan. There is no doubt that the local government system needs improvement, but it does not deserve to be finished off. 

Magistrates and commissioners are not public representatives. They are not accountable to the public. It is strongly suggested that the government should reconsider its decision and announce an election schedule for the next government at the district level.


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Volume 3, No. 1
Issue: June 2012
   Center for Policy Research & Institutional Development
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