Why local bodies devolve to free-for-all

Since the inception of Pakistan, governance has seen several changes packaged, presented or featured as amendments. Have these amendments helped in making civic life easier for the public or has it made everything more complicated and convoluted, the question remains pertinent.

One such case is of the local bodies and their power. Where do provincial governments stand on the issue of local bodies, and why does holding local body elections always such a huge hassle? Let’s first try to understand where and why this problem began, and what exactly is the role of local government (LG), given the current governance scenario in the country?

A major issue

Local bodies were introduced to the country in General Ayub’s era, and since then have never been a long-term solution. As they did not evolve organically, these have always been controversial. Also the LG was not encouraged during democracy and somehow played a better role during periods of dictatorship.

“Elected governments never encouraged LG, because it was always considered competition,” says Fauzia Yazdani, an LG specialist.

The public is in favour of local bodies because it has seen them flourish under martial law for around 40 years. “Politicians are excluded in this system which is an alternate regime for them,” says Yazdani. “Which is why they see it as competition and more ground-level politics.”

The main face of the local body, which was carried forward from the ‘70s, changed in 2002, when the Local Bodies Act (LBA) was formulated and the National Reconstruction Bureau started working on empowering local bodies. Stakeholders were involved in the system, and better results were witnessed across the country.

“Involving stakeholders helped in establishing a powerful system,” says Yazdani. “But in 2010, the LBA started to collapse and the system came to a complete end by 2011.”

The reason why local bodies were a success in the early 2000s is that they were allowed to work without financial dependence on provincial governments. The LBA allowed 40,000 councilors, which broadened the base of the local government system. Also, a substantial women representation mattered to resolve issues from all walks of life.

“One of the main reasons for the popularity of local bodies among the common man is that the union council (UC) chairman and councilor are accessible to public, while MPAs and MNAs are not,” Yazdani adds.

18th Amendment and its dire repercussions

In 2011, when the local body system started to hibernate, it wasn’t an issue. The problem started with the 18th amendment, as power was devolved from federal to provincial assemblies and the provinces became empowered to make policies for local bodies.

“Taking advantage of the amendment, each province made its own laws for LG,” says Yazdani. In this way, the revenue of LG was compromised as the revenue generating sectors fell into provincial hold,”

It was not just the acts being passed, but the National Financial Commission, Provincial Finance Commission, and then even District Finance Commission were not used properly. Many federal taxes were devolved to provinces, but fiscal devolution was not given to LG.

Yazdani explains that according to the amendment, the chief minister of the province can dissolve LG. Hence in order to decentralise power, finance and authority, everything else became compromised.

“With changes in the constitution, every province made laws and acts that suited them, and performance suffered,” she says. “Since local bodies are performance-based, they are also called ‘political nursery’. People can question their elected councilors about their performance, but MPA/MNA’s can’t be questioned, even though they can re-contest without any hesitation.”

Yazdani explains that since the LG is not even in the third tier of the government, technically the courts can’t intervene.

“According to the constitution, the provincial government is authorised to decide when to hold elections,” she says, pointing out that if the election schedule had not been issued, the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) had the right to postpone the LG elections in Karachi, on the pretext of delimitation or anything other reason.”

What do political parties think?

Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), the second biggest party to win the LG in Karachi, has not only written to the election commission, but also taken the matter to court several times, in the last two years.

“We first took this matter in hand in 2021, after the last LG was dissolved in August 2020, and since then there was no talk of holding elections,” says Hafiz Naeem Ur Rehman, JI Karachi chief, who is also a candidate for mayor. “Across the country, provincial governments never want to empower at grass root level.”

Karachi’s population has been divided into rural and urban, but apparently the parties don’t want a clear division. The result is that Consequently, they neither work themselves nor do they allow others to work.

“So according to the Sindh Local Government Act 2013 (SLGA), it is impossible for the mayor to work without permission from the provincial government as all power, finances and authority lie with the provincial minister,” says Rehman, adding that even if he does get become the mayor, he can’t deliver too much.

The LG might not have much financial power compared to 2002, but there are still several avenues for revenue generation such as road cutting, advertising, parks, markets, real estate, which can be used to serve the city.

The delimitation dilemma

“We agree that Muttahida Qaumi Movement’s (MQM) demand for delimitation was right, but it would have only delayed us more,” says Rehman.

Is the issue of delimitation blown out of proportion? “The main reason for boycotting is delimitation, because whoever becomes the mayor can’t work unless he belongs to the provincial government and is able to get financial approvals,” says Wasim Akhtar, the former mayor of Karachi. He also pointed out that they had approached the court earlier as well and the court ordered implementation of 140-A, which provides 8-10% of the power to the mayor. The order has still not been implemented, so no one can deliver anything.

The entire system has been made to suit the provincial government and nothing can be achieved without their permission, “Even for using funds at district level, a steering committee headed by the provincial minister gives permission so you are bound in a way and can’t do anything,” Akhtar adds.

The former mayor also pointed out that in 2013, when PPP was passing the act, MQM was against it even though PTI and JI were in support. “In a city of 3.5 crore population, an election is not possible without delimitation,” says Akhtar. “The UCs in MQM areas comprise 80,000 to 90,000 people, while in PPP areas they comprise 20,000 people.”

The LG elections in Karachi are usually controversial, held on court orders and each time the parties raise their concerns over polls. But MQM’s newly returned senior leader Dr Farooq Sattar disagrees.

“MQM is always up for participating in elections, but it is the opposition that never wants these elections to happen, just to save themselves from the embarrassment of losing,” he says.

Sattar explains that there were pre-poll riggings in delimitation where PPP strongholds were given a UC comprising 10,000 to 30,000 voters, meanwhile, MQM-stronghold areas were given a UC comprising 90,000 to 100,000 voters.

According to him, this gerrymandering in the UCs was done in the districts where MQM has a strong vote bank, which includes Korangi, district east, central, and west. These districts were deprived of 73 UCs.

“Sadly, we were fighting for this pre-poll rigging alone, and after deliberations of 4-5 months, the provincial PPP government finally admitted that these districts were deprived of the UCs,” Dr Sattar adds.

He laments that JI and PTI have strongholds in the above mentioned districts, but their impatience for the elections cost them to lose in UCs that were not included, and it is too late now. “In the previous tenure of the LG from 2016 to 2020, MQM had its mayor, but the lack of power made the mayor’s office useless.”

Dr Sattar, who in the ‘90s was elected as the youngest mayor of the city, explains how the LGA lacks empowerment for LG. “The main functions of the local government are solid waste, sanitation, water supply and housing, while the provincial government has town planning and building control,” he apprised. “The LGA was implemented in Karachi by PPP’s provincial government, which left the mayor with no power at all.”

Commenting on the recent merger of all MQM factions including the Mustafa Kamal-led Pak Sarzameen party, he says that the merger was the need of the time. “Failure of this merger is not an option, and it must succeed at all cost,” shares Dr Sattar. “We shall start by admitting to our mistakes and tendering an unconditional apology to our vote bank and supporters.”

He believes that their party should now focus on issues related to its vote bank such as census, an empowered LG, lack of infrastructure, water supply and the basic rights of the citizens of Karachi, who have already suffered enough in the name of law and order. “The KMC receives Rs 60 billion, compared to Mumbai’s municipal corporation that receives Rs 600 billion,” he says. “We shall work to give back what Karachi deserves from the state of Pakistan.”

Regarding MQM’s future strategy, Dr Sattar says that there are plans to induct youth below the age of 35 and to organise new leadership in the party for the next 10 years.

With MQM boycotting LG elections, a game that MQM champions, a new political landscape with some surprises has emerged in the city. Utilising the ‘controversial delimitations’ in their strongholds, PPP came up as the leading party in the LG elections with JI a couple of votes behind.

The much-debated delimitation might have cost JI a few seats, but it emerged as a runner-up, however, just four years ago the leading party of the previous general elections secured 14 National Assembly seats and stood third in the race for Karachi’s mayor.

Many believe that the party’s local leadership and performance at the grass root level drive the voting mindset in LG elections. It is also believed that the PTI has a weak organisational structure in Karachi, which has cost them the LG elections.

PTI’s Sindh President Ali Zaidi somewhat agrees, but believes that their party has improved with every subsequent election. “We had lost the previous LG elections, but then we managed to become the leading party in Karachi in the general elections,” he says.

Responding to a question about his fellow party workers and leaders criticising him for weak organisation, the former MNA responds that the party needs consistency in the leadership of Karachi and that it would eventually yield results for PTI. Citing an example from JI, Zaidi mentioned how Hafiz Naeem has continuously lost elections in the city, however, he was kept in position consistently and ultimately he brought victory for the party.

“Similarly, PTI should not remove leadership from its position year after year, but we should let them implement their plans in the long term,” says Zaidi.

Friends, enemies and frenemies

The pattern in which the votes were cast in the city left no party with a simple majority, therefore there has to be two of the three major parties electing the mayor and deputy mayor of the city. While PPP woos JI for a coalition, some believe PPP’s been doing that since before the elections, while PTI too is making all its effort to attract JI.

“We are in contact with JI, but it is busy recounting, meanwhile, we too have managed to get four of our lost seats after recounting and we are sure to get more,” says Zaidi. “Once the recounting is done, we will intensify our engagement with the JI to elect the mayor and deputy mayor of Karachi.”

Zaidi agrees that the controversial delimitations also cost PTI seats, and MQM’s concerns were genuine, but PTI does not want general elections to be postponed.

Responding to a question about coalition with PPP, Zaidi says that the PPP died long ago with the martyrdom of Benazir Bhutto.

“What remains is a mafia led by Asif Zardari,” he says. “My party is working hard and we are confidently aiming to sweep Sindh in the next general elections.

Can past mistakes be redeemed?

Along with the mistakes and problems of the past, every province has seen the outcome of the amendment. Add to that Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s endeavours to push power to the provinces, instead of devolving it to the local bodies. The brunt of it all was borne by the public who still have sewerage water standing at their doorstep or who travel daily on battered roads or wait for private company garbage collection.

“After the amendment, Punjab was the first province to take away powers from LG and Sindh followed,” says renowned economist Kaiser Bengali, explaining that the local government has been a roller coaster for 40 years and picked up pace in military rule.

“Garbage collection went to private companies which eventually cut the revenue of the local government.”

The main problem is not the provincial government’s role; it is the constitution that does not define the power of local bodies. “Only one line has been mentioned where it is up to provinces to decide,” says laments Bengali. “There are two separate chapters on the roles and rules of federal and provincial governments but nothing on LG. There is a dire need for a chapter to define LG so there can be no ambiguity in basic revenue generation and power-holding capacities such as water supply, garbage collection and local functions.”

The lion’s share

Being in majority in provincial and LG, PPP is the only party with an edge in Karachi to enable it to call the cards. Talking about how and why LG has always been an issue in Karachi, Saeed Ghani, President PPP Karachi division says that issues such as LG elections should not go to the court.

“This is a parliamentary issue, not one for the court,” he says. “Courts have other matters to handle and political parties must realise that. Every political party has its own way to view circumstances, but in 2013, when the Sindh LGA was in process, MQM had their reservations and later there was a consensus on it. When the act was passed they came up with some differences on it.”

Commenting on how the PPP has been blamed for the delimitation issue, Ghani says that only

MQM has boycotted the elections making it the main reason for their boycott.

“These delimitations and its technicalities are not easily understood and political parties tend to use it in their favour,” he clarifies. “PPP went into LG elections of 1979, 1983, 1987, 2001, 2005 with pre-defined delimitations and we never raised a question at the time as it was the responsibility of the provincial government. Also in those eras, we were not in the government. Despite being in the provincial government now, it is not our duty, but that of the ECP and it is there by law.”

Ghani further explains that in 2013, MQM went into court against the delimitation and asked for it to be given to ECP. “In the 2015 elections, PPP did delimitation, while in the recent elections, it is done through ECP and not PPP,” he explains. “By law, a UC can only be made on a population of 10% above or less of 45,000-75,000 people only. Even if an exception is made for a UC other than the defined number, the ECP has to give a written explanation. Presently, only three UCs have less than 30,000 population and a maximum of 10 that have more than 80,000 population.”

Criticising Gulzar Ahmed, former Chief Justice of Pakistan, Ghani says that among other decisions, he made the decision to implement 140-A very specifically. “We have implemented several parts of the order already, but 100 percent implementation is not done yet.”

Denying the rumour that Karachi might have two mayors, one for urban Karachi and one for rural, Ghani says that it is lawfully not possible and there is no truth in this sensational statement.

Three parties have gained the most seats in Karachi after MQM boycotted the elections. The only way, Karachi can get work done is to form an alliance and a government with the PPP or else Akhtar’s era will repeat itself where the mayor’s hands are tied up, unless the provincial government decides on untying them.

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