In the previous blogs we’ve spoken about how the government is run at the federal and provincial levels. In today’s blog we’ll go further down and talk about the Local government institutions, known as “local bodies” in Pakistan. Before going forward it is important to understand that while federal and provincial governments manage things more at the top tier level, it is in fact the local bodies that manage the day to day running of any district and then the tehsils and even villages within these districts.
In lay man’s language, local bodies are essential grassroots organizations that perform necessary administrative functions at the municipal level. The primary purpose of such entities is to ensure that power to manage financial and administrative matters is transferred to the district, sub-district and community level. The importance (if not success) of these institutions in Pakistan was so profound that even though two non-party-based elections took place for local bodies since their inception in 2001 under the Musharraf regime – and despite the fact that they became largely defunct after 2008 as the National and provincial assemblies reasserted their political power – these institutions now continue to operate under a bureaucratic methodology, and their ultimate control has been vested in the provincial government as per the 18th Amendment (more on the 18th Amendment in our coming posts!).
Provinces like Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab chose to reinstate the “commissionerate” system – i.e. a system where a bureaucratic appointee of the government is responsible for the affairs of a district – rather than keep the democratic nature of the local bodies system alive, and hold elections to the post(s) of Nazims (mayors) for various districts.
Despite the fact that local bodies have continued to function as non-representative and centrally controlled bureaucratic entities (instead of evolving into the kind of organizations that would suit the effective administration of each district), the offices and powers of the district Nazim have been re-invested into that of the commissioner or deputy/assistant commissioner (depending on size and population of district) who now administer and control the various departments created under the 2001 local government system: with separate, district-level institutions for revenue collection, law and order, health, education, development, civil defence, etc. By forcing representative officers of local bodies to become dysfunctional during and after 2008, and by installing bureaucratic officers to district-level mayoral posts instead of holding representative elections according to the right of democratic franchise, the post-2008 democratic setup in Pakistan – especially the political parties who vowed to restore real democracy to Pakistan and rid it of dictatorship – eventually ended up combining the new local bodies with the age-old, arbitrary and unrepresentative “commissionerate” system, thereby asserting centralized control over the districts from the national (and after 2010, when the 18th Amendment was promulgated, provincial) bases of government and administration.
In the last few years there has been a growing demand by the masses to re-introduce the election based local government system in which citizens will hold the power to elect their representatives to run the affairs at the local level. The Supreme Court of Pakistan in a judgement has also called upon the government to make the local government system democratic to ensure that democracy takes roots at the community level.