Devolution talk

Local government polls: Is devolution anathema to political parties?

The debate over local governments ought to be straightforward: when should local government elections be held and how can these elected governments be effective in service delivery at the grass-roots level?

Not in Pakistan, though. Here, the debate is enmeshed with the country’s turbulent political history. Local governments have been used by military rulers — both to acquire political legitimacy and to undermine political parties. They have also been used as tools for social and political engineering, creating more divisions along the lines of caste and clan within a society already suffering from multiple schisms along economic, ethnic, religious and sectarian lines.

Yet over the last three months, under pressure from the Supreme Court, three provinces have announced schedules for holding local government elections — the fourth, Balochistan, has already held them. But media persons, members of civil society and some social scientists still accuse some provincial governments of not being serious about these elections.

Some political observers, on the other hand, argue that the reasons for not holding the local government elections are not political but procedural. They point to the inability of the state to devise and implement formulas for a transparent, representative, fair and equitable system of representation in local governments. In the absence of a consensus on such processes as constituency delimitation, reservation of seats for under-represented communities and groups and the mode of elections for the heads of local governments, these elections may create more problems than they are meant to solve. As has been seen in Balochistan, questions about reserved seats and controversies over top slots remained unresolved for many months after the elections for local governments were held in the province last year.

There are also concerns that local governments have the potential to concentrate even more power in the hands of already influential families, clans and communities. And, if elected on non-party basis, they may erode whatever little institutional and electoral relevance political parties still have in Pakistan. So, are local governments a necessary part of a democratic system or are they just a means to hold back institutionalisation of party-based democratisation of the state and society?

These issues were discussed at a forum organised by the Herald in collaboration with the Centre for Excellence in Journalism, at the city campus of the Institute of Business Administration (IBA), Karachi, on March 27, 2015.

The panellists at the discussion were Lieutenant General (retd.) Tanwir Naqvi, who founded and headed the National Reconstruction Bureau (NRB) which created and supervised local governments during Pervez Musharraf’s military regime, Ali Cheema, one of the founding members at the Centre of Economic Research in Pakistan (Cerp) and an associate professor at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (Lums); and Farhan Anwar, an urban planner who also runs Shehri, a Karachi-based non-profit organisation focused on sustainable urban development. The forum was moderated byLeon Menezes, a marketing guru and newspaper columnist who also teaches at IBA.


Left to right: Tanwir Naqvi, Ali Cheema via Skype, Leon Menezes and Farhan Anwar | Faisal Mujeeb, White Star
Left to right: Tanwir Naqvi, Ali Cheema via Skype, Leon Menezes and Farhan Anwar | Faisal Mujeeb, White Star

Here are some excerpts of the discussion:

Leon Menezes. I would like to ask General Naqvi to talk about what he changed and what he sustained while he was heading the NRB.

Tanwir Naqvi. We inherited a government system of coercive rule from our colonial rulers which helped in achieving the objectives of the colonisers. The objectives were to make money and send it back home to Britain. They centralised all the authority in what is proudly referred to by the bureaucracy as the “steel frame” of the British Raj in India. At the heart of this system was the civil service and at the core of it was the deputy commissioner. He was practically in charge of all political matters, was the head of district administration, and dispensed justice through his role as district magistrate. He was also the controlling authority for district police as well as for all local government institutions in the district.

If you know that the Police Act of 1861 was designed after the 1857 Indian mutiny, you will also know that it created a mechanism to ensure that what the state wanted was done. When it wasn’t done, it was seen as a crime. From identify something as a crime to arresting and punishing someone for doing that ‘crime’ was in the hands of just two people: the deputy commissioner and the superintendent of police. This was the system we inherited.

What changed in 1947 was that we became independent, but we continued to use the same system which was meant for colonial rule. It was not meant for the people of an independent nation. What happened next was that, very gradually, the political elite wore the crown of the colonisers and retained the system. It was a lovely system for the ruling elite. It helped them make money and send it abroad. That system was not replaced for 57 years. In 2000, we replaced it by a comprehensive governance system at the lowest level.

We also inherited from the British a two-tier structure of governance: federal and provincial. This was established under the 1935 Government of India Act. There was some semblance of having a third tier in the form of basic democracy introduced during Ayub Khan’s regime. Before that, there were only municipal committees in towns and cities. In 1979, General Ziaul Haq also introduced a local body system of his own. But all these never amounted to introducing a complete third tier for governance at the local level.

The change that took place in 2000 was that we introduced a third tier of government which had powers to run all local administration, including police. All the services that people needed were provided at the local level. The way I defined the system was that it should be able to solve 99 per cent of the problems for 99 per cent of people close to their homes. Nobody should have to spend a night out of his home to solve a particular problem.

Menezes. The 18th Amendment has devolved many previously central powers to the provinces. The provincial assemblies are now free to enact their own local governance systems. This may mean that we will have at least four different systems of local government in the country. Yet, local governments in one part of the country may have to interact with their counterparts elsewhere. How will such an interaction take place and what will be some of the issues that such an interaction will encounter? Will there be any issues at all?

Farhan Anwar. I will only briefly go back to the historical context, because when we talk about empowered local government, it cannot just come out of nowhere. The problem with three-tiered governance is that there are always imbalances in distribution of powers between the federal, provincial and local governments. It is ironic that when we have democratic governments at the federal and provincial governments, local governments are packed up. And when we have military governments, the provincial governments are packed up. We keep moving in circles.

In both situations, the powers were totally stacked at the federal level. After the 18th Amendment, some of them are also stacked at the provincial level. In any case, the powers are not being transferred to the local governments. There has been always a problem in balancing the powers and functions of different tiers of government. There has always been a problem in implementing the “principle of subsidiary function”, whereby powers and functions are distributed among different tiers based on their capacity to deliver. When we have democratic governments, they want to keep all power at the provincial level because that is where they draw their strength from. They, therefore, have been reluctant to pass it on to the local level. A new vote bank and a new team of leaders is not something they would like to see emerging through local governments. In military regimes, we get local governments because these then become the vote bank of the rulers.

A genuine decentralisation of power cannot happen in Pakistan because Pakistan is a highly centralised state. Even with the passing of the 18th Amendment, most of the main powers – for instance, the power to collect revenue – are still with the centre.

Local governments cannot be empowered because fiscal decentralisation never takes place. These governments do not have the capacity to generate revenues. In a city like Karachi from where 70 per cent of the revenue for running the country is collected, the city government is always looking towards the federal government for funds.

Until we figure out how to distribute political, financial and fiscal powers in a proper manner among the three tiers of government, it hardly matters if local governments in one province differ from those in another.

Menezes. What is the power distribution mechanism that will be upset by creating local governments? Why are political parties resisting it?

Ali Cheema. I am a great admirer of the local government system introduced under the Musharraf regime; it initiated a very substantive reform. I think there have been few reforms of that scale in Pakistan. But I also have serious disagreements with that system.

To begin with, I have a very different reading of colonial history from what General Naqvi has. First of all, it is simplistic to say that the only relationship the British had with those parts of India which became Pakistan was extractive. The British made a lot of investment in public education and irrigation. They also invested in creating property rights and modern institutions of the state. The biggest beneficiary of those investments was Punjab. If you go back to 1880, you will find a very different society than the one you find by the time you reach the 20th century.

The British were obviously creating an economic zone in which they could procure raw material, but they were also creating an extremely important institution in the colonial state — that of security. The British investment in a centralised military apparatus in our part of Punjab was extremely important. It did two things: it led to the creation of a bureaucratic military state which, by the way, is not anomalous. You should look at the history of Europe from the 11th to 18th centuries. You will find out that the military bureaucratic state has been a very important predecessor of modern democratic states in Europe.

In what is now Pakistan, it had two kinds of collateral damages: one, it led to a very underdeveloped set of political institutions, including the space for political participation. If you look at electoral rules under the British — the ones you found in Punjab were very different from the ones you found in southern or eastern India. The British gave much more space to non-party-based ways of representation in Punjab. For example, some tribal chieftains had direct representation in the legislative councils without having to be elected by any franchise. The other collateral damage it caused is that it created a highly centralised bureaucracy but an underdeveloped judicial system. What you had in the end was a centralised bureaucratic state with a military edifice at the top and very underdeveloped political spaces for representation and participation. When we talk about local governments, therefore, we really have to stop seeing this as a technocratic problem mainly involving administrative services.

The bigger question we need to discuss is how a local government system fits into a system of political representation — how does it shake up the higher tiers? Central to that question has to be the equation between political representation at the local level and the representation through political parties. At the provincial and federal levels in Pakistan, it is political parties which determine how political representation is organised. The challenge we have is to discuss how political representation will be organised at the local level. We are not yet having a debate as to what a system of local government would mean for political representation and how that would link with democracy in Pakistan.

The other real challenge is the centralised political state and the perception that delivery of services can only be possible by capturing power at the central level. This is true of military governments as well as those by political parties. Everybody wants to capture Islamabad.

The third challenge is the degree of dynasticism in Pakistani politics. The instances of dynasticism here are many times higher than what you find in other countries in the region and what you find in historical comparisons. If you take into account elections that took place between 1985 and 2008, you will find out that almost 50 per cent of legislators elected represented some dynasty. The figure for India is 28 per cent. If you search for the same phenomenon in the United States at the time of the civil war, it was around one per cent in the south and that was considered to be really high.

The current system in Pakistan is already very oligarchic — based on dynastic structures in the institutions of politics and state. Where the local government system can be useful is as a way to jolt that oligarchic nature of politics. We need to figure out what set of institutions and rules will help us do that. There are some models of decentralising power to the local governments which have succeeded, but there are a number of other models where decentralisation has resulted in the elite capturing all the power.

Menezes. If capturing Islamabad is still the key to running the country, why would anyone be interested in doing politics at the local level — that is, where there are people, but where there is no power to be had?

Naqvi. The point is absolutely valid. We started as a unitary state with a constitution based on the 1935 Government of India Act. We didn’t change that. We just Pakistanised the act and adopted it as an interim constitution. This went on till 1956 when we got our first constitution. The 1935 Government of India Act is at the heart of even the 1973 constitution as far as governance is concerned. It was only a quasi-federal constitution — proven by the fact we had to pass the 18th Amendment to make it federal.

During the military government of Pervez Musharraf, we also wanted to bring in that type of amendment but we wanted to pursue a bottom-up approach so as to avoid a clash between different tiers of government. We first devolved power to the local governments and in the next stage wanted to establish a balance of power between the federal and the provincial governments. Our “principle of subsidiary function” was that no tier should do what a lower tier can do. That is why we conceived the local tier first. We wanted to equip the local governments with whatever capacity or capability they needed for service delivery. Whatever they could not do was then to become the purview of the provincial government. For example, it is not possible for local governments to manage a canal system that runs through five districts. The same goes for a road system that passes through different districts. Such subjects, then, would become provincial. But no single province can defend the country’s territory, nor can it run foreign and economic affairs. Let these subjects be at the federal level then.

Essentially, we haven’t yet become a three-tiered federation but the question is, should we wait until we have resolved this fundamental question? We decided not to wait. We started at the bottom because that is where governance affects people the most.

Anwar. We are still stuck in some kind of a twilight zone. The world is just racing past us. We are now in an age where the paradigm of urban planning and local governance is totally changing. For instance, nobody is talking about master plans anymore, but we are still teaching master planning in our universities. We are in the age of strategic planning; we are in the age of green cities, smart cities, futuristic cities. Nobody is considering the fact that urbanisation is challenging the writ of the Pakistani state. Research shows that Pakistan is already about 35-40 per cent urbanised and this is going to increase, but we are not bothered about this.

Urban planning all over the world is part of local governance systems. We need to come out of this political flux. Otherwise, we will be facing major problems. For a city like Karachi with a population of over 20 million, we don’t have a city government. Worse still, functions that should ideally be with the local government system are being taken up by the provinces. For example, we have Sindh Solid Waste Management Board. Have you heard about a provincial government handling solid waste anywhere in the world? There is a Sindh Mass Transit Authority coming up. We are going in the opposite direction. We need to be empowering our cities. We need to be empowering our local governance system.

It has always been said that the local government tier in Pakistan does not get the power that it should because it doesn’t have the status of a proper tier in our constitution. In the United States, the local government system is also not recognised by the constitution but that has not stopped the country from empowering its cities or local governance systems. The cities there make their own policies and their own decisions to raise revenues. The city government of Los Angeles owns an airport which is probably the seventh-busiest commercial airport in the world. In Pakistan, the city government owns nothing. Only 39 per cent of the land in Karachi comes under city government control. All the policies are made at the provincial level. Local governments do not have the capacity for revenue generation.

Even if local governments are receiving funding from the federal or provincial governments, 80-90 per cent of these funds goes into paying salaries. No money is spent on operation maintenance or capital investments. It is a dire situation and we should start thinking about the future. Otherwise, it will only get worse.

Menezes. The city governments are left with only billboards for revenue collection, which is why you see cities across the country full of billboards. Here, however, are some other questions. Why is it that political governments are so against local governments? Why is it that some people want party-less elections at the local level?

Cheema. These questions go back to the degree of political concentration that I talked about. The important thing to realise is that concentration of power is not just a problem at the top of the system. Even at the district level, there is a very high concentration of political power. A lot of it comes from the ability to control the allocation of party nominations for elections within districts. That is how dynastic families exercise control. So, typically, a local party-based system – if it’s designed with functional electoral rules – is going to shake up or create competition within dynastic organisations. That is why there is resistance to such a system. The way the non-party system works is that it gives these families at the top the ability to still control who competes and who doesn’t compete. Worse still, it gives them the ability to co-opt other families and other candidates. Whoever is in power at the top can co-opt whoever wins at the bottom.

Disagreeing slightly with other panellists, I think Article 140A of the Constitution gives constitutional protection to local governments. It is true that Article 140A doesn’t describe the type of local government that needs to be set up; that is left to the provinces. But the fact that the article is there means that setting up local governments is a constitutional requirement. It is exactly this compulsion that the courts are using to force provincial governments to set up local government systems.

The question is, under what sort of administrative mechanisms and what sort of political mechanism should these local governments come about? Every province is passing its own act for a local government system. How does that fit in with the wider goal of effective delivery of services to the people, of strengthening democratisation, of vibrancy in political participation, of breaking concentration of political power? Those are the discussions we should be having.

Naqvi. The only thing that I would like to say is that an electoral system has a lot to do with what kind of representatives you end up with. The electoral system in Pakistan is so rotten that it cannot elect anyone except low-quality people who then indulge in practices that are unethical. The existing political elite have developed mechanisms for using the electoral system to their advantage. They have a stake in preserving it. This electoral system needs to go.

We tried to change the electoral system at the union council level by saying that the whole union council is going to be one single constituency. No single contestant will fight against a single opponent. We also made it mandatory that the Election Commission of Pakistan conducted the local elections. In the past, provincial election authorities conducted the local elections, allowing provincial governments to have massive influence over polling.

Article 140A is the last article in the constitution. Instead, we should have had a whole chapter in the operative part of the constitution on local governments, like the one we have on the provincial governments. For that, everyone must agree that there has to be a three-tier governance system. When we have formally agreed to that, then we have to decide the principle of subsidiary function — what should be the power and structure of the lowest level of government in accordance with its capacity and capability? Then give the residual powers to the provinces and similarly move to the federal level.

On the contrary, there is a general tendency to weaken local governments. For example, many clauses and sections of the Local Government Ordinance of 2000 were subsequently amended by provincial governments to dilute the powers it had given to local governments. Both Punjab and Sindh have passed laws which will not create local governments but local bodies — they will have no powers. All the empowerment provisions and all the check-and-balance provisions in the ordinance have been taken out. Only those checks and balances have been retained which help provincial governments in suppressing local governments. Those meant to protect local governments against encroachment on their authority have been taken out.

Anwar. Our daily issues can be solved only at the local level because that is where we have access to our representatives. We can go and meet our councillor, our mayor. Local governments also act as nurseries for nurturing future political leaders that can go up to the provincial and federal levels. That is not happening.

How can that happen? You need to have a major overhaul based on the challenges of the present day and how they are being solved and tackled all over the world. There is something going on in the world known as “metropolitan revolution”. We have really exciting and interesting models coming up all over the world where city governments are making policies and ensuring all the services are provided, but they themselves are not into service provision. The paradigm shift that has occurred is that local governments and city government institutions are less about service provision and more about facilitating, for example, by devising public-private partnership models. This is not privatisation, but rather, involving the private sector.

In Pakistan, there is no cadre of officers available at the municipal level. The officers come from the federal or the provincial level. You need more officials who belong to the municipalities so that they know the reality of life at the grass-roots level. There are people who take up official posts in Karachi but have no idea of urban issues. If an official does not know what urbanisation is and what challenges it poses, what can he do?

Finally, the city governments should have the capacity to borrow. Right now, a city government cannot borrow money from the World Bank, for example. Our local government institutions are burdened with endless debt. Sometimes, the water board cannot pay its electricity bills. There has to be a system in which these institutions can get loans, based on their credit-worthiness.

Cheema. For me, the most important aspect is that local body elections should be party-based. The verdict of the Lahore High Court in this regard is a very progressive verdict [which rejected party-less local government polls in Punjab]. In the long term, it is going to create competition between parties. If you look at India, local governments have sustained in exactly those states where political parties have taken a lead in capturing local space. This is what happened in West Bengal where the Communist Party of India (Marxist) used local governments to entrench itself in power at the provincial level.

Where we need much more collective thinking is for the electoral rules for these local governments. What are going to be the inter-links between different tiers of government? One of the things I really liked in the 2001 model was that the union nazims were acting as district councillors, because that strengthened political links between the district and the union council tiers.

Menezes. When you have a political system that operates through local governments, then the elected representatives are held accountable for each of their actions. When they present themselves to a wider audience at the provincial or the national level, they will have a track record of public service that they seem to be lacking now. The other thing in Pakistan is that it is the same people who fight and win elections — whether the elections are party-based or otherwise. Because the parties really don’t fund candidates, these people get the ticket or the flag of a party with the hope to win the election. Beyond that, they are free agents. This is why you see people switching their party affiliations so frequently. This is quite a big issue and goes beyond just local governments. With that, I invite the audience to ask any questions that they have.


Faisal Mujeeb, White Star
Faisal Mujeeb, White Star

Shehzad Khalil. Mr Cheema, you said power should be fixed from the top. Can you please elaborate?

Cheema. When we think about local governments, it is important that we think about mechanisms in which competition for this centralised power can be increased. I do not think that non-party systems can do that.

I would also like to caution you against seeing decentralised systems as progressive. During the civil rights movement in the United States, most retrogressive actors were state governments which electorally denied blacks their rights; it was the federal government that was pushing the agenda of the civil rights movement.

We will have to make a tiered political system in which ensuring service delivery at the local level makes a politician a competitor for leadership at a higher level. Tayyip Erdoğan’s ability to deliver at the local government level helped him capture central power in Turkey. That link has never existed in our systems, nor are we deliberating over it.

Naqvi. Who knew Mustafa Kamal [before he became Karachi’s nazim in 2005]? It is his performance that gave him recognition. He undoubtedly did stand out as a leader of the future. It was, indeed, a part of the nature of his office — the occupant was to get political and administrative experience. This is how you get people who don’t just sit in assemblies to become prime ministers but manage administration and know governance in all its dimensions.

Khalil. General Naqvi, what was the mechanism that you suggested for the accountability of district mayors or zila nazims?

Naqvi. No government in the world is run by angels, but to stop people from being dishonest there should be a mechanism. Accountability should be part of the system, which fixes it from within.

Checks and balances were put in place in our system to ensure there was no misuse of authority by local governments. Most importantly, there were checks and balances which empowered provincial governments to oversee and even remove local governments — though with the approval of provincial assemblies, so that there was no political witch-hunt.

Muzammil Afzal. Could you talk a little about the implementation of the 18th Amendment? Where is the implementation lacking — on the legislative side or the fiscal side?

Anwar. The 18th Amendment can only be successful if the powers meant for local governments reach them from among those powers devolved to the provinces by the federation. If those powers do not reach local governments, then what is the point of devolution of power?

Menezes. If you look at the power structure in Pakistan, the prime minister is the most powerful person in the country. Basic governance activities like the meeting of the Council of Common Interests should automatically happen every three months, as is given in the constitution, but that does not happen because the prime minister chooses otherwise. The prime minister does not present himself before parliament. So many other statutory things that are supposed to happen do not happen because the prime minister does not want them to happen. There is no accountability. Then, the governments at the centre and in the provinces provide development funds to the legislators at the national and provincial levels which leaves no funds for people at the city level.

Taha Nadeem. Mr Cheema, would you agree that political heavyweights are already grooming their next of kin and dynasticism is set to continue? Can local government elections shake up the status quo with respect to dynasticism?

Cheema. If we go back into history, what you find is that the road to democracy everywhere has been blocked by concentration of power. There are very few societies where political power was very equally distributed from the beginning. Whether you look at England or other European countries, or the United States of America, there were cliques there that controlled power. The role that political parties play is that they create competition between these power brokers. What has happened in the areas of India that became Pakistan is that we started off with very unequal degrees of political power. The Unionist Party set up under the British has carried through virtually unchanged for very long periods and exists even today under different names. This model has allowed influential families to acquire political and economic power and play the role of mediators between the state and the citizens/subjects.

We need to have a debate about electoral rules for not just the national and provincial assemblies, but also for the local governments and the Senate in order to break this concentration of power.


Menezes. This has been a very interesting discussion. I would like to request each of the speakers to please make their closing remarks.

Naqvi. If the local government system we introduced was allowed to continue for another 10 to 15 years, it would have produced representatives who could use their powers with greater responsibility. The system had given leadership roles to political leaders; the bureaucracy was made subordinate to them. Political leaders, therefore, grew up in an environment where they exercised political, administrative and financial authority during their term at the local governments. If the system had continued, it could have become a crucible or training ground for future leaders at the provincial and federal levels. The system we introduced also made salient changes. No local government system of the past or the ones being conceived for the future has done that.

Cheema. Creating a tier for affective municipal service delivery is central to creating municipal relationships between citizen and state, which is highly underdeveloped in Pakistan. None of the current provincial acts governing local government systems in the four provinces actually pushes far enough. The Punjab law centralises health and education sectors at the provincial level; in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the provincial government has far-reaching powers to intervene in local tiers. In Sindh, local governments in urban and rural areas have different levels of power and autonomy.

An important step that we have taken is that local government elections will have to be party-based now. This could be either beneficial or detrimental, depending on the electoral rules under which these elections are held. We need to debate whether the first-past-the-post system in the upcoming local elections is the best way to proceed. We cannot have that debate in time for the upcoming elections, but this will be an important debate for the future.

Another important thing for the sustainability of any local government system is that it has to be embedded in the federal framework. Devolution of power is a political issue and it cannot be discussed without discussing redistribution of resources and powers. It is not a technocratic issue. It will require a political settlement among the units of the federation. We should be honest in recognising that such a political settlement is required at the federal level before any local government can be sustainable.

Anwar. We cannot have an effective local government system when there is no local-level mobilisation of people. It will happen only when people are informed and they are participating in the process and know the rules and regulations that apply to them — what are their rights and responsibilities within the system, what are the avenues they can use to demand those rights and responsibilities?

Demanding your rights is a political action. In instances where we see fewer chances of change coming from the top, one must realise that often it is the bottom-up approach that works. People need to demand their rights and the intelligentsia should become the voice of the marginalised who do not have a say in the developments taking place in our cities. We are the ones who need to become better informed and active participants in the political process.

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