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IN the shadow of a half-constructed multi-story plaza between two empty plots strewn with construction rubble, sits a shabby looking shed of concrete blocks and corrugated iron roof.

Inside, under the pale glow of an energy saver light bulb sits a shalwar kameez clad grade-7 official tapping away at a battered desktop computer. Meet Mr Kaleem (real names have been changed on request), secretary of his union council in Sialkot. He is surrounded by some locals with documents to be attested or corrected.

Just outside the shed sits Mr Jawed the former nazim of the union council. He is no longer an elected official since the local government system introduced by former president Gen Musharraf became defunct. Regardless, he comes to this office every day in his white starched shalwar kameez on his motorcycle and sets up with an empty chair next to him.

He is on friendly terms with the public official inside, who often comes out to ask him a question. “Jawed Sahib, this woman is a widow and says she cannot get her husband’s pension because of something wrong in the death certificate … or something. I cannot understand what the problem is.”

Jawed asks the woman, Naseem Bibi, to sit in the empty chair and proceeds to pepper her and the flustered official with questions. “When did your husband die?” “Where is your marriage certificate? ID cards? His service record?”

Naseem hands over a wad of documents to him. It is obvious that she cannot read. Jawed’s brow furrows as he reviews each document carefully. Then: “Here! You see, your deceased husband’s name is incorrect on the death certificate. Bibi, you will need to go to the hospital where your husband passed away and get them to correct the name based on his ID card and your marriage documents.”

The woman looks worried. Jawed continues, “Don’t worry. I will call someone.” He pulls out a phone from his pocket and places a call. After he finishes his call he assures the woman that she will have her problem solved if she goes to the hospital. The woman looks relieved and thanks him, before heading off. Kaleem, looking relieved heads back into the shed.

One of the more contentious debates in Pakistani politics is between those in favour of elected local government and those opposed to it.

Those in favour argue for “complete” devolution down to the district level. On their side is the argument that there are a number of public services which are best
delivered at the local level.

It is also undeniable that an elected local government is more likely to feel accountable towards those who vote it in (and could vote it out) than a government functionary, sent to the district by Karachi, Lahore, Peshawar or Quetta. An officer at the local level is beholden to senior officers and provincial representatives, not directly to local ones. There is little here to disagree with.

A minority argues against devolution to districts on the grounds that it would create yet another tier of corruption and waste. In principal Article 140-A of the constitution makes the debate moot.

It commands that the provinces shall establish “a local government system and devolve political, administrative and financial responsibility and authority to the elected representatives of the local governments.” However, the Constitution is silent on the time frame.

The real argument is over the politics of devolution. For decades military regimes have used various kinds of local governance mechanisms to thwart and weaken democratic rule, generally, and party politics, specifically.

Because so many of our political disagreements mirror provincial boundaries (actual or hoped for provinces), a favourite tool of such regimes has been local government systems; from Ayub’s Basic Democracies within one unit to Musharraf’s LG system.

A central consequence is to bypass the provinces, and thereby provincial political actors. This undermines the essential nature of the federation: that the provinces are the federating units.

In this context, expecting political parties who derive their legitimacy and power through the ballot at the provincial level to let go of some of the hard-earned legislative and fiscal authority to the local level may be asking for too much too soon.

In Punjab, the battle between Lahore and the southern part of the province is complicated by the demand for a separate province. Expect local government to feature prominently in the back and forth, post elections.

In Sindh, expect the PPP, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), and Sindhi nationalists to be locked in a constant battle on the matter. The only realistic chance for the MQM to truly govern independently is to have elected government at the local level.

The PPP, loath to give up power to local actors, agreed to decentralise six metropolitan areas in Sindh while maintaining the commissioner system elsewhere, but it later reversed the decision.

Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa have passed laws governing the establishment of local governments, but implementation is a considerable way off. Almost every party manifesto includes a commitment to establish local government systems if they come to power.

The move towards elected local government will most probably be messy and convoluted, pushed and pulled in every direction by interest groups. What emerges ought to have greater legitimacy than previous efforts, however, owing to the fact it would be authored by elected provincial legislators.

Back at the shed, I ask Kaleem why he thinks Jawed does it, an ousted public official serving locals for no personal gain. Kaleem shrugs his shoulders, “Maybe, he hopes that if the LG system comes back they will remember. Maybe they will vote for him again.”

The writer is an Associate Fellow at the Sustainable Development Policy Institute.

This article was originally published at: Dawn

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the viewpoint or stance of SDPI.