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Strengthening LGs

AT the heart of the petition filed by the MQM challenging the constitutionality of the Sindh Local Government Act, 2013, lay a simple question: can a provincial government arrogate to itself the powers and functions vested in the local governments after the inclusion of Article 140A in the Constitution, which directs provincial governments to devolve administrative, political and financial authority to elected LGs?

The Sindh government vociferously resisted an expansive construction of Article 140A, arguing that the spirit of devolution espoused in the 18th Amendment was restricted to the devolution of power and financial resources from the centre to the provinces and did not entail that the provinces too devolve administrative authority and fiscal resources to LGs in the same spirit. Notwithstanding this stunted conception of democracy and devolution, however, the Supreme Court allowed the petition, directing the provincial government to devolve meaningful authority to elected LGs so as to comply with the mandate of Article 140A. How significant is the court’s judgement and would empowering LGs alleviate the misery of citizens compelled to live in unlivable cities?

Local governments constitute the cornerstone of a functioning democracy. In recognising that local issues are best addressed by a government comprising members from the locality as opposed to the federal or provincial government, the state provides for the direct involvement of citizens in decision-making at the local level, thus, engendering greater political participation. Resultantly, with these governments lies the citizens’ first and natural attachment given that the functions of these most profoundly affect their daily lives; they are most acquainted with the affairs of these and with their members they are most likely to have ties of kinship. LGs are, therefore, critical for democracy to deepen, for diverse opinions and legitimate interests to be taken into account, and for service delivery to be closer to and be held accountable by the people.

The Sindh government would do well to embrace the court’s decision.

In a robust democracy, service delivery in local government carves a path for local leaders to advance to higher political office. These paths, however, are closed when mainstream parties are divorced from LGs. When LGs are controlled by unelected and unaccountable bureaucrats, political parties have little motivation to galvanise grassroots supporters and rally around local issues. Regular LG elections on a partisan basis on the other hand create an incentive for parties to enhance their reputations by focusing on local governance. A functioning LG, therefore, contributes to the system’s vitality by increasing accountability through democratic competition and affords political parties the opportunity to organise their cadres, thus, increasing political participation.

Notwithstanding the merits of a functioning LG system, the provincial government has shown some displeasure with the court’s decision, with certain members of the ruling party insinuating that the province of Sindh was particularly targeted. However, these statements are flippant and are belied by the fact that the court recently restored the LGs prematurely dissolved in the Punjab province.

Given the various ethnic and linguistic fault lines in Sindh, the provincial government would do well to embrace the judgement and devolve meaningful authority to the LGs as opposed to stoking the flames of ethnic tensions in an attempt to maintain its hegemony.

With the MQM grappling with fratricidal strife and the PTI reeling from the effects of an economy in nosedive, the PPP’s electoral future in Karachi may well depend on how it responds to the Supreme Court’s judgement on the issue of LGs. Would it endeavour to improve service delivery by promoting local leaders, such as the current administrator Karachi, and devolve meaningful authority to LGs, thus, injecting a new lease of life into its own party? Or will it continue to cripple LGs while accusing the centre of diluting provincial autonomy?

Similarly, while the court’s decision to strengthen LGs deserves acclaim, the court too would do well to remember that functions legitimately devolved to elected local governments ought to be protected not only from the provincial governments but also from the court’s own activism. Writing for these pages, lawyer Moiz Jafferi had said: “Our chief justices of late have had hobby careers, such as Saqib Nisar and his reinvention as a dam engineer and professional prison food taster. Justice Gulzar seemed to prefer building control in Karachi.”

Will the judgement in this case save elected LGs from provincial governments and the court’s own best instincts? Only time will tell. Until then, let us rejoice. The tyranny of centralisation may be coming to an end.

Mirza Moiz Baig, "Strengthening LGs," Dawn. 2022-02-15.
Keywords: Political science , Political issues , Political aspects , Political parties , Political leaders