When General Musharraf introduced the Local Government Ordinance in 2001, it was considered controversial to start with. The old LGO as it was known, was lumbered with structural, conceptual and poor delivery problems even though it was protected by the constitution in Article 268. One criticism leveled against it was that given the fraught experience of resource-sharing between federating units in Pakistan, no decentralization plan could afford to ignore the issue of devolving power, like the concurrent legislative list, to the provinces before considering fiscally feasible administrative units at the local level. Yet that is precisely what the NRB’s 2000 Devolution Plan did. Instead of devolving power in three tiers, by moving power down the provincial line and reducing the load of federal ministries, power was shared directly between the President and the elected local officials. The immediate beneficiary of a formula in which elected officials were held responsible to the General was of course, the General himself, as the powers of non-party nazims were made subject to their pliability in the Presidential Referendum of 2002.
So instead of empowering the people through decentralization, the local government machine has been used as an instrument for regime-legitimisation. This is totally in line with General Ayub Khan’s and General Zia’s local body ordinances as these too created a pool of apolitical local strongmen. Non-party elections never really played out as non-party polls, then or now, but what they did do was reinforce ethnic, feudal and sectarian faultlines in society after the election, when candidates were not really beholden to party votes, mobilization or policies. If an opposition party wanted the parading of a woman councilor naked on the streets in Sargodha condemned by its local politicians, for instance, it could not enforce party policy or discipline, leaving councilors to act according to age-old vertical loyalties to tribe, kin or class. If it wanted its councilors and representatives to clean up the garbage and sanitation mess in a district or town, it could not do so, because the public representative was only answerable to the military president.
But even in terms of implementation, the LG plan has been notable for its lapses. Section 14 of the SLGO mandated that the provincial governments would devolve powers to the district assemblies to empower them fiscally and administratively. Key departments such as labour, social welfare, co-operatives, accounts, excise and taxation, and population welfare remained outside the purview of Local government. In Karachi for instance, the Karachi Building Control Authority and Water Board were not run by local government as envisioned by the devolution plan. No Monitoring Committees and public safety commissions were actually set up to enable district assemblies to function coherently. Nor were they able to make annual development plans and budgets as promised. While directly elected union councilors have exercised residual or no power, it is the indirectly elected zila and tehsil nazims that have functioned as the centrepiece of the military’s intrusive strategy of co-opting or coercing through ‘supervisory’ administrative teams headed by military officials.
Despite the fact that 97 district governments were formed in 2002 through this system its own anomalies and contradictions weighed down even its positive objectives because right until their dismissal, local units only exercised nominal administrative autonomy. The positive aspects of this purported decentralization, which were the subordination of bureaucrats to elected officials for the first time at the district level, and the inclusion of women’s reservation in local government, also unfortunately ran into roadblocks that arose from non-institutionalization of the plan at uniform levels. The residual efficiencies of the Collectorate system of administration, in place since the days of the British Raj, gave way to an administrative tangle at the zila and tehsil level, where police and line departments would refuse to comply with orders from the zila nazims, given that their powers were never unambiguously articulated in General Tanvir’s magnum opus.
In Sindh for instance, the stated main purpose of the Sindh Local Government Ordinance, 2001, was to devolve power to the lowest unit for government. Changes announced in June 2005 have actually rendered the initial devolution plan and LGO of 2001 irrelevant. As late as last month, weeks before the announcement of the LB schedule, 81 changes were gazetted in the SLGO, which includes the removal of 15 clauses, and the insertion of 46 new rules. The main thrust of these changes was to empower the provincial executive at the expense of the elected local representative. This has clearly been done to facilitate government candidates and to avoid the kind of result that the non-party poll of 2002 had yielded, despite extensive measures to disenfranchise the opposition’s voters.
After the 2005 amendments in the LGO, all nazims have been made entirely dependent on the CM’s will, whose powers are now absolute, reducing the whole devolutionary exercise to a charade. His discretion and political interests can now completely dictate the course of how a nazim governs or even survives as an elected representative. First of all he can suspend a Nazim, but recourse for appeals lies with a Local Bodies Commission which is headed by the Provincial Local Government minister. Although this body carries a few independent members as well as a member of the opposition, government will of course dominate the proceedings as well as the outcome. Worse, if the Union Councils want to make their bye-laws and rules, which is the whole purpose of a district assembly and union council, the CM can without explanation reject any resolution that the Union Councils pass.
In order to ensure that the local body elections would yield an optimal crop of regime-loyalists, pre-poll rigging has been instigated on an unprecedented scale. The first sign of the government’s intentions became evident when in Sindh districts 23 districts were carved out of 16 districts without any criteria except political manipulation. Awam Dost Nazims were dismissed illegally without concurrence from even the NRB chief, Danial Aziz. The next most ominous sign of things to come was the non-confirmation of the Acting Chief Election Commissioner’s office for the duration of the election. His confirmation in this constitutional office was made contingent on his performance as partisan loyalist to the King’s party, compromising his independence from the start.
On the one hand, the government insists that Local Bodies polls be held on a non-party basis, yet government party members are openly using state resources to manipulate the elections in their favour. Scores of PML Q MNAs and MPAs have announced their resolve to contest the elections without giving up their party positions or parliamentary affiliation, in shameless disregard of pre-electoral norms anywhere in the world. Photographs of the Chief Minister of Sindh have been plastered all over the newspapers, endorsing candidates for PML Q. General Musharraf himself set the seal on this surreal suspension of the Code of Conduct by campaigning in Swat while exhorting people to vote for PML Q candidates.
Meanwhile, to facilitate the CM’s misuse of power to disqualify opposition councilors, more than a hundred transfers from DIG to constable level have taken place in Sindh alone since 30 June. In Hyderabad itself, forty-five police officials including DPOs and SHO, have been moved to ensure the delivery of votes to government nominees. These officers have seen to it that every trick in the book has been used to pressure opposition candidates to withdraw, with no length spared for women as well, who have been kidnapped from their homes, often at midnight in Diplo, Karachi, Thatta, Hyderabad and Dadu as part of a concerted witch hunt of Awam Dost candidates. The same reign of terror has been unleashed against other vulnerable groups, particularly the Hindu community in Tharparkar and other areas, since they all tend to vote for the PPP’s support base. Despite the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan’s complaints against the holding of contesting opposition candidates in jails on patently false cases, such as Guddu Bihari in Karachi, and the orders of the courts to release them, the Sindh administration blatantly continues to violate such verdicts. In one massive operation across all provinces ,polling stations have been moved without due process to disable opposition voters, particularly women, who can’t always cross large tracts of desert land, while the old 2001 electoral lists are being used to disenfranchise 8.3 new voters who are mostly under 18 years, and prone to vote for opposition parties.
Clearly, both polling days on August 18th and 25th will witness their own round of innovations by the government, but one thing is certain. Although the LB electoral exercise is being conducted for the second time, the government is suffering its inconvenience today only for two reasons: One is to provide General Musharraf with a fig-leaf of legitimacy for the international donor community that he courts so assiduously. The other is to ensure that the new round of fiscally flush nazimeen forms an unassailable pool of Musharraf loyalists who can swing the crucial 2007 general election in the direction the General wants, Pakistan has already seen five years of one-man rule in the country. This selection will guarantee his perpetuation through the old mullah-military nexus.
Sherry Rehman is President of the Policy-Planning Wing of the Pakistan Peoples Party, and Member National Assembly in Pakistan.