Government at the doorstep

Pakistan’s somewhat erratic rendezvous with local government

In the backdrop of the somewhat heightened political temperature between various political groups, Pakistanis seem to be silently experiencing a new avenue; an avenue, which has not been implemented regularly during the last 75 years of the country’s existence; the local bodies’ elections or the city council elections. As these words go into print, there is uncertainty of elections being held in select districts out of ‘political expediency’.

In modern nation states; the first tier is central or federal; which derives its existence from the government in the centre; determining distribution, usage of resources as well as the desired policies, which need to be undertaken. The provincial tier guides the federating units, counties, states, provinces towards a set of policies and a sphere of activities exclusive to a certain region.

Provided the process of referral to local bodies’ ballot is made a constitutional obligation on the state, the current round might not yield the desired results needed, system-wise. A renowned economist once threw up the idea of ‘domestic commerce’, which meant designing the cities to match commerce facilitation. It seems the government at door and development of micro commerce is alien to the established order. All a bewildered Pakistani should think of should be a frontline state managed as a police state

For the sake of covering the expenditure, it is the highest tier, the government at the centre, which determines the concurrent list of taxes, duties and other government levies the other tiers like provincial or local government are liable to collect. Similarly, the spheres of activity, which the provinces are supposed to see, is also determined by the centre. In the case of Pakistan, agriculture, which since the country’s inception has been a federal subject, is now after the passage of the 18th Constitutional Amendment, a provincial subject.

The third tier has been the part of the political systems around the world. It makes no difference whether the system of government is a theocracy like Iran or an early day hybrid system like Turkey. The third tier is responsible for development works like construction of roads and affiliated infrastructure, provision of land to the upper tiers of the government, like if the air force needs a tract of land for the construction of an airbase, it needs to consult the local government for the related modalities.

Coming back to Pakistan, the local government systems have been fraught with firstly erratic implementation of the system in the country; secondly, its usual implementation has been identified with the brief stints of direct military rule. The local bodies system was first introduced in Pakistan during the Ayub era in early 1960, when the then military government had already done away with all types of political opposition; EBDOed (derived from EBDO, a military government order aimed at disqualifying politicians from electoral politics; the credible political opposition). The second round was never completed as unrest overtook many of the then government plans.

The Zia government also toyed with that idea and it was the case with the Musharraf dispensation. The rationale for the two last named military dictatorships was that once the known and credible opposition was disqualified or debarred, the new leadership would automatically be under a moral obligation to follow the military government; act as grass root support for it.

For obvious reasons, the utility of the local tier of the government for the populace at large was clouded. That was influenced by the thought process held by the political elite that, the introduction of the local bodies politics was not to benefit the society, rather it was packaged in a manner to introduce a new crop of leaders, beholden to the military and intelligence. These political elites were correct on certain counts that the new leadership was not a team of qualified young professionals, rather a new wave of the 22 families propped up against the traditional political camps by the deep state.

It is a fact that the only credible political club in Pakistani politics, which can challenge the trader-centric PML(N) and agriculture/middle income-centric PPP in the elections is the PTI, which fortunately or unfortunately is made up of the political elite thrown up during the Zia and Musharraf years.

In the backdrop of these perceptions, it has been observed that the PPP or PML( N) seldom went for any serious commitment towards holding the local bodies’ polls whenever they were in control in the centre. The direct consequence of that thought process has been that many tasks, which were supposed to be the natural domain of a city government; fell first into the provincial domain, and gradually became a national issue. In no country does the central government or the provincial government in their respective ADP or the Annual Development Plans list underpasses, ring roads, or flyovers as their responsibility.

Here the development work taking place in Lahore, Karachi, Islamabad or Peshawar is undertaken as worthy of political capital. The provincial and central governments directly hijack the city development work. The result is that there is no progressive monitoring of the needs of civic life and whatever development is undertaken is based on the political imagination of the party in power. These are erratic investments, which might not be followed up professionally.

The other devastating fallout is the degeneration of the political culture at the first and second tiers. Central government shies away from taking critical decisions that have a futuristic outlook. Similarly, provincial governments are also clueless what to do with the resources available; natural, agricultural or mineral, to make the most of the benefits.

Here it must be observed that despite an apparently centric approach, the Chinese state has clearly demarcated the tiers and the provincial governments are free to pursue the economic growth options. It is no ‘military secret’ that Chengdu province in China is known for its aviation-related military hardware. Similarly, other provincial entities are known after specific sectors of economic activity. That could not have been possible if the demarcation of the tiers had been allowed to be clouded and consequently without any defining line.

Here it would be appropriate to note that political parties have found that to be the vehicle of good governance in other countries. Turkiye strong man Tayyab Erdogan owes much of his political capital to his days as Mayor of Istanbul, when the whole country was under the tight grip of ‘Hybrid’ Kemalist generals. His own party was in political wilderness and its chief Necmettin Erbakan was in prison. Despite all the odds, that Islamist trend succeeded to catch the imagination of the Turkish electorate; the rest is history. In the same manner, in Iran, much of the face uplift of the cities, especially Tehran, owes itself to the mayors; prominent amongst them former President Ahmadinejad and the incumbent speaker of Majlis Baqer Qalibaf. Election to the city council and the election of mayor in Iran goes in parallel in the timeline; when simultaneous ballot boxes and papers are issued to the voters for the election of the president, new members in place of outgoing members of Leadership (Khubregan) assembly and the members of the city councils.

Regretfully there is no tradition as such witnessed in Turkiye and Iran, found in Pakistan. Pakistan is characterized by a political herd culture; where any political group having the deep state’s approval can make the most of funds embezzlement. In Afghanistan, a term is used, “Gilam Jam”, means pushing the rug from beneath, meaning looting. In Pakistan, a  Gilam jam ritual is undertaken every five years when political governments take over central and provincial budgets. The cities suffer as a result and one can find piles of waste in every city like Karachi, Lahore and others, because of the absence of any dividing lines and consequently absence of any system; which can take care of the cities.

Provided the process of referral to local bodies’ ballot is made a constitutional obligation on the state, the current round might not yield the desired results needed, system-wise. A renowned economist once threw up the idea of ‘domestic commerce’, which meant designing the cities to match commerce facilitation. It seems the government at door and development of micro commerce is alien to the established order. All a bewildered Pakistani should think of should be a frontline state managed as a police state.

Naqi Akbar
Naqi Akbar
The writer is a freelance columnist

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