Local government is a system of administration for small political units like districts, towns and villages. It operates within a larger framework under the constitution; the powers of local government are usually delegated by central government. The third tier of democratic set of governance is also democratically elected, and administers such matters as local environmental health, sanitation, transport, education and host of other issues encompassing local problems and their solutions. The powers of local government vary from country to country depending on the form of government it had; however, the sole purpose is to serve the local community through locally-chosen representatives.
In Pakistan, local governments have always been used as a tool to strengthen the hands of unelected rather self-imposed leaders for drawing legitimacy from the grassroots level. In reality, all efforts of so-called elite ultimately failed which resulted in creation of more polarization in society rather than becoming a way to serve the people. The past experiences under dictatorships bear testimony to that whether it is Basic Democracies plan, or ruling through the 1979 law of local bodies or more lately Musharraf regime that brought a new form of local government through Local Government Ordinance 2001. All failed; because they were meant to serve their masters, not the people. Moreover, they were not the representatives of masses in the true sense.
All previous local government elections were held under military leadership; no democratically elected government succeeded to transfer the power at grassroots level to which they had been preaching just for the sake of completion of their manifestos or booklets. Now, after 18th constitutional amendment, it had become imperative for the provincial governments to hold local bodies’ elections and transfer power to third tier of government to complete three tier setup of democratically-elected government for the first time in the history of Pakistan.
On the orders of the Supreme Court of Pakistan, the provinces, at last, decided to hold elections for local bodies for which they have introduced a number of amendments to the Local Government Act which are debatable again, if seen in the context of transfer of administrative, financial and political authority to the local bodies. The Article 140A of the Constitution of Pakistan explicitly states: “Each Province shall, by law, establish a local government system and devolve political, administrative and financial responsibility and authority to the elected representatives of the local governments.” It is to be noted that the provincial governments have retained the authority to suspend or remove the head of an elected local government. The functioning of the local government funds shall also be managed by the finance department and finance minister of the province. Similarly, the creation of education and health authorities, comprising members from the provincial government, local government, technocrats and the private sector has also been effected. The chief minister of the province will be the appointing authority and he can dismiss the head of the authority or dissolve the authorities.
Despite all odds, it is encouraging that for the very first time in country’s history elections for local bodies have been conducted under a democratic setup. Now, comes the hard part. The question at the moment is whether provinces would transfer political, administrative and financial powers to the elected local government representatives in true sense amidst a history of keeping power in the hands of few in the province. At the same time, one should not be oblivious to the fact that democracy is strengthening its roots in Pakistan; for the very first time power was peacefully transferred from one democratically-elected government to the new democratically-elected government. Provinces demonstrated political acumen in reaching on an understanding over the distribution of share from divisible pool of the federation.
If the system is allowed to move forward in the right direction without any undue intervention by any political party, it would certainly help improve the quality of governance and preparing leadership for the political parties for higher levels of country’s politics. For that purpose, local governments are required to be given more financial authority and sufficient resources to deal with service delivery and development challenges in local communities. Provinces are required to exhibit true allegiance to the implementation of the 18th Amendment to empower local government structure.