Pakistan: Government of the Select, by the Select, for the Select  

By Syeda Aroob Iqbal

The author works for the World Bank in Washington DC as Education Economist. She is also an active board member of the South Asia Democracy Watch, a nonprofit organization in Dallas, Texas, and Washington DC.

This article highlights the need to strengthen the local government system in Pakistan within the context of the webinar offered by the South Asia Democracy Watch in collaboration with the Atlantic Council on June 14. Please watch the webinar video on this link: https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/southasiasource/webinar-reforming-local-governments-in-pakistan/.

In 2013, for the first time in the then sixty-six-year history of Pakistan, the country had the first peaceful transition from one democratically elected government to the next. It was a proud moment with a heavy dose of sobriety that it took us this long. Democracy in Pakistan, disrupted by long stretches of military rule, has had a shaky and painful history.

Yet, since 2008, we at least have a semblance of democratic governance in place, and given time, continuity, and steps in the right direction, we might be able to bring democratic norms back to the national psyche, embed democratic values as the central tenet of our Pakistani citizenship.

This vision of a village farmer or an urban worker with the right to demand schools in the village or a proper sewerage system in the area and with the power to vote out electoral candidates, who fail to meet demands, is possible.

Our neighboring country, India, has been able to bring democracy to the people where they are, at least in rural areas – through village panchayats. With our third consecutive democratically elected government in place, we need to start thinking about bringing democracy closer to the people in their districts, cities, villages.

Pakistan is the world’s fifth most populous country. While Brazil, a country similar in population to Pakistan, has 26 states and 5,507 self-governing municipalities with their elected mayor and councils, Pakistan has only four provinces. For a family in Thar in Sindh or South Punjab, democracy comes at election time and sits in Karachi or Lahore for the rest – too far for the family to feel any sense of political agency in improving their living conditions.  

Local governments can bring the political agency to people, but unfortunately, the provincial governments have been dragging their feet to hold local government elections. The last local government elections were held in 2015. Currently, there are no functional local governments in Pakistan.

At the start of 2019, local governments were operating in each federating unit of Pakistan. In January 2019, the four-year tenure of local governments ended in Baluchistan. In May 2019, all local governments in Punjab were dissolved through legislation passed by the Punjab Assembly. And in August, the three-year tenure of local governments in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) also expired.

In Sindh, the local governments completed their terms and expired on August 30. The incumbent party has not announced new election dates in any of these provinces, preferring instead to rule the districts through handpicked bureaucrats.

This delay in holding local government elections seems incomprehensible as Article 140A of the constitution of Pakistan makes it mandatory for provincial governments to have local government elections. Additionally, the Elections Act passed in 2017 requires the Election Commission of Pakistan to hold local government elections within 120 days after the last local government’s tenure.

South Asia Democracy Watch (SDW), in collaboration with the Atlantic Council, hosted a webinar to discuss what steps can be taken to move forward the establishment of local governments in the country. The rich and insightful discussion led by the panelists brought out many essential points.

First, there must be a chapter on local governments in the Constitution of Pakistan that makes local governments a critical tier of democratic governance in Pakistan. We have examples of functioning local governments in South Asian countries, including India, Nepal, and Bangladesh, to learn and develop.

Some key points were also brought up that can improve the functioning of local governments and reduce the elite capture and corruption in the local government structures. This included the need for a soft architecture of citizen participation that can ensure citizens are actively engaged in holding local government officials accountable, an effective oversight structure from the provincial government, and the need for quotas for women and minority groups.

Local governments will not be a magic-bullet solution for all the governance ailments in Pakistan. Still, they will be a step in the right direction, and given time can be the key institutions providing the needed political agency to people.

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