Banners of political parties displayed in Lahore during a local government election | Azhar Jafri, White Star
Banners of political parties displayed in Lahore during a local government election | Azhar Jafri, White Star

Local government has been one of the main pillars of the governance agenda of ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) since 2013. So, after winning the 2018 election, the party turned its attention to reforming local governance in Punjab, acknowledging what it has “learnt from the pitfalls it confronted in governance” in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Its most recent election manifesto points out that local development in villages and small towns in Pakistan is controlled either by members of the provincial assemblies (MPAs) and members of the National Assembly (MNAs), or by bureaucrats “who do not want to cede authority and relevance”.

It, therefore, had plans to “introduce a city government model, where the directly elected Mayor will be responsible to deliver on all interrelated urban city matters”. This is what the PTI has done with the passage of the Punjab Local Government Act 2019 and the Punjab Village Panchayats and Neighbourhood Councils Act 2019.

Undoubtedly, the local government system being introduced by the PTI is better than the one implemented by the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN) via the Punjab Local Government Act 2013. The PMLN version allowed direct party-based elections for councillors but those who came to hold higher-level posts in local governments were elected indirectly.

Over time, the government also made many changes in the law – the most egregious one being a provision for the appointment of technocratic members who could then become mayors – that further weakened the local government system. The Punjab Local Government Act 2013 also did not provide for a meaningful fiscal devolution from the provincial to the local level. Local governments had little money at their disposal and remained dependent on the provincial government and bureaucracy.

The PTI’s local government laws, by comparison and in theory, seem intent upon devolving real fiscal and administrative powers to the local level. They also aim at allowing people to participate more directly in local politics. These laws, however, are not without problems. In fact, their ambitious scope raises numerous questions regarding their implementation as well as the capacity of the local governments they will create.

The new laws re-establish a rural-urban divide, somewhat similar to the local government system introduced by General (retd) Pervez Musharraf in 2001. The Punjab Village Panchayats and Neighbourhood Councils Act 2019, for instance, envisions panchayats for rural areas and councils for urban ones (and does away with union councils). These panchayats and councils will perform such civic functions as taking care of sanitation, water supply, population welfare, public health, sewerage disposal and waste management. Higher tiers of local government can also devolve more responsibilities to them.

ork on a sewage line left incomplete on University road, Peshawar | Shahbaz Butt, White Star
ork on a sewage line left incomplete on University road, Peshawar | Shahbaz Butt, White Star

The Punjab Local Government Act 2019, similarly, provides for a tehsil council for the whole population of each tehsil in the province but it envisions metropolitan corporations, municipal corporations, municipal committees and town committees specifically for urban areas (doing away with district governments). The PTI argues that districts in Punjab are too large – both in size and population – to be governed effectively through district governments. In most cases, district councils will be too far removed from their voters. A tehsil, the party contends, is a better avenue for engaging with local population because it is a smaller unit.

The critics of the decision to bypass districts, however, rightly point out that this omission will limit the professional and technocratic resource pool available to tehsil councils because more resourceful and better trained personnel will like to work in bigger district headquarters rather than in small tehsil towns. This means the entire burden of delivering essential services will fall on the shoulders of untrained public representatives at the tehsil level.

This problem can be overcome by ensuring that public representatives get proper training, not only about their responsibilities and powers but also about the rules and regulations that govern their work. Such trainings should also be conducted with the intent to empower local government representatives in such a way that they are no longer reliant on provincial authorities for understanding and fulfilling their local development needs.

The second major flaw of the act is that it allows the provincial government to retain considerable regulatory control. For instance, it makes local governments work under the direction of the provincial authorities “in such manner and to such extent” as these authorities require in areas such as education, waste management, health, building regulations, public transport, crime and the maintenance of public order.

Bureaucratic politics in Punjab will be another important indicator of the success or failure of the new system. There are three reasons for that. Firstly, the Punjab Local Government Act 2019 says that deputy commissioner (DC) will be a district-level coordinator between different local governments but he or she remains outside the purview of all the local governments within the district. How power dynamics will work between directly elected heads of local governments, MPAs and MNAs, and DCs appointed by the provincial government will determine whether local governments will work effectively or not.

Secondly, the act provides that a chief officer, a bureaucrat, will be appointed in each local government. These officers will have considerable power to administer and monitor the work of local governments; the heads of local governments, too, will have the power to evaluate and report the performance, or lack thereof, of these officers to the provincial secretary of local government department.

This is in line with the Musharraf-era local government system that empowered elected mayors to evaluate the performance of district coordination officers. There was resistance against this provision back then from the bureaucracy, as Ali Cheema, Asim Ijaz Khwaja and Adnan Qadir have noted in a paper, Local Government Reforms In Pakistan: Context, Content And Causes. It will be interesting to see how the bureaucracy responds to it now.

And thirdly, as Umair Javed’s column, ‘Litmus tests for devolution’, published in daily Dawn, and Shahrukh Wani’s analysis, published by under the title ‘Has Punjab just taken a step towards unlocking the potential of its cities?’ point out, the bureaucracy’s willingness – or unwillingness – to hand over power will be particularly important for the system’s effective implementation in urban centres.

Open list system: If five seats are available in a constituency, the person with the highest number of votes will get the first seat (and will become the chairperson), the person with the second highest number of votes will gain the second seat — so on and so forth.

The act intends to devolve many civic agencies and local authorities – such as the Water and Sanitation Agency, Lahore Development Authority, Traffic Engineering, Transport Planning Agency and Parks and Horticultural Authority – to the mayor’s office. Bureaucrats exercise a great deal of discretionary powers in these entities and there are numerous lobbies that will strongly resist ceding these powers to elected representatives, as Syed Mohammad Ali has pointed out in his report, Devolution of Power in Pakistan, written for the United States Institute of Peace.

Devolving administrative powers may turn out to be even more fraught considering that fiscal resources to be transferred to local governments under the Punjab Local Government Act 2019 are quite large. The act provides for the transfer of no less than 26 per cent of the province’s general revenue receipts for the first two years and no less than 28 per cent of the same in subsequent years.

On the surface of it, this commitment marks a significant improvement in comparison with the 2013 law that left local governments beholden to the provincial government. It remains to be seen if the PTI government can maintain this commitment considering the austerity measures mandated by the International Monetary Fund’s assistance package.

Yet the devolution of revenue generation powers, and funding-based incentives to generate more revenue and deliver better services are likely to allow local governments more room to manoeuvre than they had in the past.

What may help the system to also work better is the fact that various oversight mechanisms will be put in place, as per the provisions of the Punjab Local Government Act 2019, to ensure that local governments perform. These include a Local Government Finance Commission, the Punjab Local Government Commission and an Inspectorate of Local Governments. Procedures for oversight by the provincial government, processes for responsiveness to citizens, and the ways and means to remove the heads of local governments (though these have certain limitations) are also being devised to complement the work of these entities.

While it is too early to judge the effectiveness, or otherwise, of these bodies and the accompanying rules and regulations, some concerns are already being expressed regarding the extent of power these may have over local governments.

Elections to village panchayats and neighbourhood councils will be held under an “open list system” for multi-member constituencies and the candidates will need no nominations from political parties. The reason being cited for leaving the parties out of this tier is that local governments need to be insulated from provincial and national politics so that these can focus on delivering civic services. This provision, however, disincentivises political parties from establishing themselves at the grass-roots level. Ali Cheema has highlighted the consequences of a weak party presence locally in a 2015 column — titled ‘Whither local self-government?’ and published in daily Dawn.

“It is vital that the leadership of political parties realises [sic] the political dividends of building strong grass-roots ties through local democracy. Their own experience reveals that the political costs of weak grass-roots ties are exorbitant. One would imagine that this lesson has been learnt. If not, [Professor Adam] Przeworski’s research on new democracies flashes a warning that half [of these democracies] fail within 10 years and revert to a non-democratic form,” he wrote.

As Hassan Javid has also pointed out in his article, ‘Punjab’s new local government act: An interesting mix of ideas’, published on the website of Geo News, local governments have been used by military regimes in the past to weaken political parties by reconfiguring political allegiances on the basis of clan ties and religious or sectarian affiliations.

Keeping the parties out of elections in villages and neighbourhoods runs the same risks again even when the PTI government is arguing that the new system will reduce the influence of clans and strongmen. It is quite likely that candidates will join hands in informal panels to campaign together under a local leader who is intending to be the chairperson. In the absence of party associations, they may find it convenient to exploit primordial affiliations of caste and creed.

Sewage accumulated near an Orange Line  Metro Train bridge in Lahore | Murtaza Ali, White Star
Sewage accumulated near an Orange Line Metro Train bridge in Lahore | Murtaza Ali, White Star

On the contrary, the Punjab Local Government Act 2019 strengthens the powers of party leaders by providing for party-based elections at tehsil level and for urban committees/corporations. These elections will be held under a closed list proportional representation system.

The PTI government’s contention is that this system will greatly increase the costs of contesting elections as independent candidates and will, thus, cement voters’ affinity with parties. It is also being seen as a means to reduce personality-based politics, allowing progressive and professional candidates to enter the field through party nominations. Another likely benefit of this system is that it will allow smaller parties and traditionally excluded groups to be represented in local governments, leading to more diverse elected bodies.

The way reservation of seats for women will work under the closed list system is another positive aspect of the Punjab Local Government Act 2019. Rather than maintaining a separate reserved list for them, which is not voted on at all, women candidates will be “zipped” into a closed list of general councillors. Every alternate name on the list will be that of a woman, ensuring that they are actually elected and not selected. On the flip side, the closed list system will allow party leaders to determine who will be on their lists as well as the order in which the names of their nominees will appear on those lists.

The closed list system, thus, strengthens centralised, top-down party control over the candidate selection process, enhances intra-party competition to curry favour with party leaders and disincentivises parties from establishing such institutional structures at the local level that are independent of their leaderships. As Mariam Mufti, an assistant professor at the University of Waterloo, Canada, notes, Pakistan’s major parties are organisationally weak, and their recruitment and selection strategies for MPAs and MNAs are highly personalised and centralised.

A closed list system will only enhance and institutionalise such control all the way down to the local government level. Therefore, unless there is a significant change in how the major parties organise themselves internally, and reform the way they recruit and select candidates, the long-term gains to the party system may not be as substantial as the authors of the law may have imagined.

Closed list system: The closed list system allows political parties or other groupings to determine their list of candidates for the available seats. For example, if there are 10 seats available, each party or group will draw a list of 10 names in the order it likes. The voters will vote for the whole list. They will not cast a separate vote for each individual seat. The allocation of seats between different parties/groupings will be done on the basis of proportion of votes they win.

Equally importantly, a common outcome of the proportional representation systems is that these produce hung houses where no party holds a sufficient majority to push legislation through. The system certainly encourages coalition building but it also often hinders decision-making.

To counter this risk, as well as to compensate for the relative disenfranchisement of voters (because they cannot vote for individual candidates under the closed list system), the Punjab Local Government Act 2019 provides that the head of each local government be elected directly. This is a positive step, especially in comparison to the Punjab Local Government Act 2013, as it makes the heads of local governments directly accountable to the people. It also ensures that no one is elected as the head of a local government without enjoying the support of a significant proportion of the voting population.

The law, however, becomes a little confusing at this point. Its sections between 83 and 87 state that the same ballot will carry the name of the candidate for the top slot of a local government as will have the closed list for councillors. This means that voters will cast just one vote, limiting voter choice and making the closed list dependent on voter preferences for the head of a local government. While this may have some positive effects – such as encouraging members of professional groups to enter politics – it also makes candidates for the top slot immensely powerful figures in local politics. How this power will play out vis-a-vis MPAs and MNAs, and how parties will handle their internal politics will have a significant impact on the implementation of the local government system.

As Umair Javed points out, PTI’s local government legislation, like all such laws in the past, is “an attempt to reconfigure power dynamics”. This is not meant as a value judgement but is a comment on how institution building is done.

The two laws, indeed, propose a large-scale change in the administrative and political setup of Punjab. According to the secretary of the province’s local government department, the top echelons of PTI – Prime Minister Imran Khan, ousted local government minister Abdul Aleem Khan and the party’s chief strategist Jahangir Tareen – were instrumental in designing the new local government system. For them, apparently, the key issues have been the electoral systems to be used, and the growth potential of cities if their regulatory and revenue generation powers are devolved.

The opposition alleges the government has devised a system that suits its own political interests and that is why it has not consulted other political parties in any meaningful way before passing the two laws. It says the government has not allowed a proper debate on the new laws even within the assembly, pushing them through for passage in great haste.

There is some truth in these allegations. Addressing a press conference where the new laws were unveiled, Imran Khan did say his party wanted to introduce a local government system that strengthened its electoral prospects in the next election. He said the PTI could mass mobilise people in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in the 2018 polls because voters who had benefited from its local government system there wanted to return the compliments.

Yet the PMLN in particular, and other parties in general, must play catch-up and get ready to orient their party structures to the new system. By “engaging in adversarial politics, instead of offering a credible alternative and holding the ruling party accountable”, as Mariam Mufti argues, opposition parties stand to lose more than they will gain. They will be better advised to make good use of the time they have to consolidate their party structures at the local level in order to be well-placed for the coming local government elections.

A note of caution is necessary here. If the new laws are to be fully implemented by May 2020 (as is currently planned), the government will need to carry out a number of activities over the next few months — fresh constituency delimitations, changes in electoral rules and procedures, the passage of supplementary legislation and the establishment of various commissions mandated by the laws.

What must not get lost in the technical and administrative aspects of bringing this new system to fruition is the burden of educating voters, candidates, politicians and bureaucrats alike on the finer points of these laws. Without a clear understanding of what roles and responsibilities the laws assign to each of them, elected local government representatives will not be able to perform as they are envisioned.

Similarly, without a thorough grasp of new electoral rules, voters will not be able to exercise their right to choose properly. And without a consensus across the institutions of government on the need to devolve power, politicians and bureaucrats will continue to undermine local governments.

Correction: The Punjab Local Government Act 2019 maintains the rural-urban divide established by the Punjab Local Government Act 2013. General Musharraf’s local government system had done away with this division.”

The writer is an assistant professor at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.

The article was published in the Herald's June 2019 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.