Local governments are termed the third tier of government in Pakistan after the national and provincial setups but unfortunately these have not been allowed to take root, thereby depriving the vast majority of a direct stake in their development.
Though under Article 32 and 140-A of the Constitution provincial governments are bound to establish local bodies and transfer power to them, there has always been a reluctance towards this process of devolution. The main reason for this is said to be the unwillingness of provincial governments to surrender control of their powers and funds.
At the moment, there is no local government system in place in any of the four provinces, with some delaying the local bodies’ elections after the expiry of their terms while others having halted their functioning midway on one pretext or the other.
The voices of strengthening local government systems are getting louder, especially as their need was felt recently during the battling of the coronavirus pandemic at the grassroots level.
The representation of vulnerable communities in local governments is another demand that workers at the local level have brought to the fore.
In Punjab, the old system was recently wrapped up and new laws introduced to hold local government elections — without any definitive timeline.
One thing that has caught people’s attention is that in the proposed new system, reserved seats like those of minorities and women will also see elections and these candidates will not be handpicked as was past practice.
Bushra Khaliq, executive director WISE, pointed out that there is a window of opportunity here for workers and representatives of vulnerable communities to become a part of the system.
She said it is up to the people of the electoral college to elect the most capable candidates on reserved seats after encouraging them to contest elections. Earlier, she explained, elected members of local government units would handpick people on reserved seats just to oblige their loyalists.
Similarly, minorities’ representatives are also upbeat and hope they can get rid of people who used to be stooges of mainstream political parties rather than being the true representatives of their communities.
Joseph, a social activist, said that he has started approaching people of his community because they would be directing their representatives through direct vote. Minority voters will get an additional ballot paper to caste vote in favour of their representatives. However, one point of concern is that there is a condition of minorities having at least five per cent share of total voters in order to avail their reserved seat. “This condition is discriminatory and must be done away with,” demanded Joseph.
Ghazala Imam, former member of Town Council, Lahore, stressed that a high number of women do not have national identity cards which curtails their right to vote and contest elections. “Unless this issue is taken care of, the target of politically empowering women cannot be met,” she asserted. Ghazala urged the National Database and Registration Authority, which registers voters, to simplify its procedures instead of creating difficulties.
Highlighting the importance of local governments, Salman Abid, a political analyst, termed them nurseries for politicians “who graduate from here and ultimately join provincial and national legislatures.” Additionally, as the geographical size of these constituencies is small, the voters often personally know their candidates. “Therefore these are the best starting points for vulnerable and underprivileged groups to start politics.”
Salman hoped that if the promised funds are transferred to local bodies, elected members will be able to bring a positive, need-based change in their constituencies.