Micro-democracy: the LGS

Daily: Cutting Edge (weekly)
Date: 14.01.10

If the year 2009 is dedicated to the issue of the NRO, the year 2010 may be devoted to the
issue of the local government: what should be the new structure and function of the Local
Government System (LGS)?

The question is not whether the LGS is propitious to the common people to whom
democracy is supposed to serve but whether the LGS is suitable to the genius of the
politicians who have stakes (politico-economic) in the system? Answers to these questions
hold the future of the LGS in Pakistan.

But then the stakes of politicians is one thing; retribution and obsession are different things.
Prima facie, one of the major reasons of criticism to the recently expired LGS was that the
system had loopholes to mushroom corruption. That may be true. But there was another –
parallel – reason of criticism to the LGS: the system was a remnant of the rule of a military
dictator, General Pervaiz Musharraf. That is, anything descended from the Musharraf
regime deserved to be discarded. That is how the legacy factor precludes the politicians
from owning the LGS.

The Government of Punjab, dominated by the PML-N, is infatuated with having the
executive officers around to execute its orders. That may be a method to reach out to the
people promptly to address their problems but then should that be at the cost of devouring
the spirit of democracy is the next best question. If the executive have to run the
government, what will be the use of the people’s representatives at the Union, Tehsil and
District levels? Further, if the elected local representatives are disallowed to gather
experience at the micro-democratic level, why the politicians of the PML-N at the national
level criticise the military for depriving them of amassing democratic experience – a product
of trial and error process – to run the state affairs?

In essence, the military under the auspices of Musharraf pleaded, among other points,
inefficiency (in both planning and execution of any policy) of the politicians in running the
state affairs to overrun the democratic system. The military presented itself as a service
institution to cater to the needs of the people, besides defending them in crises. But then
the military is not meant for playing the dual role which is otherwise beyond its physical and
constitutional capacity. The overreaching effect of the military’s efficiency beyond its
mandated role shrunk space for the politicians to run the state affairs and gather
democratic memory. That is the point which goes against the military’s expediency. In the
same vein, if the provincial governments gives the executive precedence over the
representatives of the local government, why to moan about lacking of democratic
opportunities at the national level. Interestingly, the provincial governments demand
autonomy (both fiscal and political) from the centre but deny the same to the local
governments, as if the local governments were pariah in the democratic system.

The point is very simple and straight: if the memory of a system is not built, how the system
can pass the tests of evolution leading to its improvement? Moreover, Nawaz Sharif, the
former Prime Minister, still recalls the day of October 12, 1999, and expresses his
dissatisfaction with the people at not taking the matter of violation of his ‘heavy mandate’ to
the streets. It seems that he and his brother, Shahbaz Sharif, the Chief Minister of Punjab,
are still fail to appreciate simple points: if the people do not have stakes in the system at
the local level, they will not come out to protect the system at the national level; if the
people are not democratically experienced, they tend not to protect democracy from getting
humiliated at the hands of military dictatorship; and if the people are not engaged in
democracy at the local level, they will not value presence of democracy at the national
level. Mere allegations of corruption infesting the LGS cannot be an excuse to obliterate the
spirit of devolution of power; the gapes should be bridged through democratic means and
not through empowering the executive. The proposed amendments to the LGS should not
be at the cost of disempowerment of the elected representatives and empowerment of the
executive – the pivot of the matter.

Looking from another angle, it seems that democracy has not yet fittingly penetrated the
Pakistani mindset. Even the elected politicians at the national level have penchant for
running the democratic system through the undemocratic ways. That is why it is said that
Pakistanis in general live at the border line of welcoming military dictatorship under one
pretext or another – at least the history speaks for that. So the question is can democracy
be infused into Pakistanis to inveigle them eschewing the insidious, hushed approval of
military dictatorship? The political arrangement that does not act for political awakening of
the people dooms to failure. Along with that collapses the superstructure of fundamental
rights of the people. So the fundamental rights of the people do not give a prop to
democracy but the vice versa. Let the people get empowered at the local level and then
see the miracles taking place at the national level.

What is called the crisis of governance is the product of ignoring importance of participation
of the people in the state affairs. If the people are just instruments to cast votes and then
be bystanders to watch the political circus, governance of a city or the whole country
cannot improve. The modern day concept of governance entails community participation –
whether it is economic affairs or the matter of maintaining law and order is. Karachi is the
prime example of the initiative lying in the hands of the local politicians belonging to the
MQM introducing development, affluence and peace to the city. If the local people are
ready to manage a crisis, no situation can go out of hands. Karachi has been braving
onslaughts of terror that might not have been borne had any other city of the country been
the target.  

So far, the MQM experience in urban Sind especially in Karachi to run the LGS is
successful and an example for other provinces and areas to follow. At the national level, the
MQM is the only political party insisting on having the LGS without any amendment in
Karachi. The stance of the MQM does not emanate from its pro-Musharraf standing but is
rooted in the achievements of the LGS in Karachi. Further, owing to the MQM, the centre
failed to amend the LGS (after the LGS expired on December 31, 2009) and that the centre
had to leave the matter to the prerogative of the provinces instead of asserting its own
verdict. But the question is whether the provinces are constitutionally empowered to amend
the LGS incorporated into the Constitution in its Schedule VI through the 17th Amendment?
Probably not, without any Constitutional Amendment.

The way the Punjab government is hell bent on amending the LGS on its own discretion to
(re)introduce the executive – under the ruse of stamping out corruption from the LGS – it
can be visualized that the country may be having at least two types of the LGS: one,
running in Karachi and, the second, running in the rest of the country. One can argue that
the double system is very much possible in any democratic dispensation. But the question
is for how long the Karachi-model of the LGS will be resisted by the provinces from diffusing
into their urban centres? In the answer – that is, not for a long time – to this question lies
the strength of the LGS, the brainchild of Danyal Aziz

Back to columns in 2010