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Reluctance to devolve power

Pakistan is nearing the end of a second democratic government. Troubling or turbulent as both these tenures may have been, they allowed the country to finally demonstrate its democratic credentials. Rule by politicians, however, isn’t automatically democratic. Meaningful democracy requires devolving power and decentralising governance. Although Pakistan repeatedly experimented with the concept of bringing power closer to the people, we haven’t yet been able to meaningfully provide authority and decision-making to the lower levels of government.

Ironically, devolution in Pakistan has often been experimented with under military regimes. Gen Ayub Khan first tried to create a tier of local governments through the Basic Democracies Ordinance, 1959 and the Municipal Administration Ordinance, 1960. A Local Government Ordinance (LGO), 1979, was introduced by Gen Ziaul Haq. During Gen Musharraf’s regime, an attempt was again made to establish local governments under the LGO, 2001.

These measures were enforced by military rulers primarily to engage people in non-party-based electoral politics and gain a measure of legitimacy, while bypassing mainstream political parties.

The devolutionary process unfolding under the Musharraf era, in fact, resulted in instigating more responsive governance and development at district level and lower tiers of governance. Yet, it hadn’t allowed devolution of power from the centre to the provinces, due to which it was criticised for consolidating the hold of an unrepresentative central government through the patronage of district level politicians.

With the return to democracy in 2008, politicians resolved to undo the devolutionary process put in place by Musharraf rather than trying to reform it. The unfolding devolutionary exercise could have been made more effective by instituting reforms to devolve power from the centre to the provinces. Instead, parliament ratified the Constitution through the 18th Amendment in 2010, enabling greater provincial autonomy from the federal level, which would further facilitate devolution at lower levels of government from scratch.

While our politicians have been lauding themselves for having instituted constitutional changes to shrink the prospect of authoritarian or excessively centralised governance, the Amendment has achieved lacklustre results. Seven years after the constitutional ratification, provincial governments remain reluctant to transfer significant powers, responsibilities and resources to local governments. Elections at local government level were delayed till 2015. Merely holding these elections isn’t sufficient to ensure devolution of power, without substantive fiscal and administrative devolution of power. Long delays in transfer of funds and power to local governments remain a problem. No significant efforts have been made to build the capacity of their representatives. Minorities, women and other marginalised groups haven’t been provided sufficient space to participate.

It is ironic that the tendency of centralising power is also entrenched within our democratic governments, who are reluctant to devolve their power. Our major political parties haven’t endorsed the idea of local governments and instead, continued to delay the implementation of the 18th Amendment’s provisions. Experts point out that Pakistan’s political elite fears devolution may undermine their electoral hegemony and pave the way for a rise of new political challengers. However, devolution remains essential to increasing accountability and efficiency of governance within Pakistan.

Effective devolution can have important implications for furthering democratisation. Unless decentralisation and devolution of power is allowed by our political elites, people at the grassroots level will remain deprived of effective and responsive governance structures and service delivery mechanisms, and continue relying on the patronage of authoritarian rulers, making decisions from afar.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 19th, 2017.

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