A PROCESS, dragged out for two years, is nearing conclusion as Punjab becomes the fourth and final province to instal elected local governments at the district and sub-district levels.
Elections for mayor and chairperson slots held in December provide ample confirmation of the PML-N’s dominant position in the province: Lahore plus all 10 municipal corporations will have PML-N mayors. Preliminary results show 33 district councils out of 35 electing a PML-N chairperson, with only Pakpattan and Attock falling to independent candidates backed by opposition parties.
Out of the 171 small towns known as municipal committees, 106 were won by PML-N, and another 46 by independent candidates who are affiliated with the party in some form or the other. The PTI’s haul, on the other hand, was restricted to 13, with Toba Tek Singh being the only victory of note.
Installing trust in local governments and building their institutional capacity to deliver has to start at some point.
In view of this upcoming transition, the Punjab government has worked out a civil administration ordinance that, in combination with the local government act, will change the shape of district-based governance. Early reports point to a concentration of power in the revived office of the deputy commissioner, who will act as the provincial government’s representative in the district.
Essentially, the two laws combined will create two parallel bureaucracies: one controlled by the province and the other — headed by a ‘chief officer’ — by the elected local government. A preliminary analysis of the laws suggests it will be the former that controls integral spheres of financial management and local development.
There are some points of contention still being ironed out. High-ranking police officers are resisting proposals to increase the district bureaucracy’s control over local policing, while the issue of reviving judicial functions of DCs faces a number of legal hurdles. Nonetheless, whatever shape the final set-up takes, there is little doubt that the provincial government, and in particular the chief minister’s office, will continue to wield excessive executive authority at the district level.
The drive to centralise authority at the provincial tier and resist substantive devolution — wherein local councils would wield greater executive control and oversight over their geographical areas — is a symptom of the PML-N’s politics. That this drive continues to flourish despite the party’s resounding electoral success points to deeper issues in the leadership’s psyche and its political vision.
Before delving into a critique, it is pertinent to mention that a (mildly) reasonable case for this tendency to centralise and bureaucratise executive authority does exist. Shahbaz Sharif’s entire political persona, and by corollary, the PML-N’s success amongst urban voters, is built on the idea of ‘delivering’.
Whether it’s an infrastructure project or an immunisation drive, the Punjab government’s publicised dynamism is what distinguishes it from other provincial governments (and parties). Thus, a centralised approach, built on a small team of political leaders and bureaucrats overseeing everything from assessment to planning to execution, works well for this project-based idea of governance.
With China’s expanding footprint on local development work, the need for project-based governance has grown even more. To make ‘Punjab speed’ work, institutional layers need to be removed and the capacity to deliver has to be implanted from above. In this calculus, a district council or a municipal corporation overseeing a historically under-resourced and low-capacity local bureaucracy is viewed as a major hindrance.
I am somewhat sympathetic to this line of reasoning in so far that issues of capacity at all stages (planning, assessment, and delivery) do plague district-based bureaucracies. Local councils offer the potential to make optimal decisions on allocation of resources, but in many cases they are merely used for small-scale targeting of patronage. The persisting problem of capacity is one that can only be resolved over time, something which many political governments feel they don’t have in ample amounts. This is also partly why military regimes, which operate with longer time-horizons and are more secure in their political positions, prefer to gain political legitimacy through devolution.
Nonetheless, installing trust in local governments and building their institutional capacity to deliver on a shared development vision has to start at some point. Project-based delivery will fall short in both development terms and on the political front. Health and education, for example, are both governance-based problems that cannot be resolved at ‘Punjab speed’. They require an improvement in institutions and accountability mechanisms, which means investing in the capacities of line departments and their partners at the local level. Centralising authority and creating ad hoc governing arrangements will only act as disabling factors in the long run.
Secondly, of greater concern for the party should be risks associated with a change in its political fortunes. Today, the PML-N’s leadership in Punjab is undercutting thousands of its own elected individuals because it knows the cost of doing so is quite low. By centralising authority, it can deliver on a number of selected fronts and win the next election. Those elected to district councils and municipal corporations will twiddle thumbs and fight over paltry funds because they have no other option. They can’t alienate the leadership because there are plenty waiting to take their place and toe the leadership line. They can’t jump ship either, because the political opposition is fragmented and the ruling party’s brand is still very popular with the voters.
If, at some point in the future, a grand alliance between the PTI and PPP puts up a tougher fight, the PML-N will find itself in the unhealthy situation of having alienated and ignored its own elected membership at the grass-roots level. As opposition parties become plausible alternatives, local politicians will look elsewhere for greater control over their own jurisdictions. It remains to be seen whether the opposition can raise the costs for the government’s decision of choosing short-term delivery over long-run stability.
The writer is a freelance columnist.
Published in Dawn, January 2nd, 2017