Authority and Democracy: Envisaging Local Government In Pakistan

Authority and Democracy: Envisaging Local Government In Pakistan
Musharraf’s recent death in February harkens us back to the decades-long debate of democracy versus authoritarianism, the rule of the people versus that of unelected military leaders. Public and media opinion in recent years has started shifting in favor of the democratic tide, although this in no way implies active enthusiasm for the system. A healthy, functioning democracy for most Pakistanis remains an elusive dream.

There are active reasons for this phenomenon, the foremost being that whenever Pakistan has ever called itself a democracy, it has been engulfed in the poisonous fumes of mostly oligarchic and dynastic politics with superficial representation for common citizens at best. Military rule is officially over and yet, it seems that even under so-called democratic conditions, the country is on the brink of collapse and the shots are being called by those in Rawalpindi. We only have foreign reserves to pay for two more weeks of imports; inflation is at an all-time high of 37% and Pakistan continues to rank at number 145 in the Free Speech Index.

Meanwhile at the time of Musharraf, we had a Prime Minister assassinated (a similar event nearly occurred under Shehbaz Sharif’s government just a few months ago), an entire Lawyer's Movement and the constitution once again ‘held in abeyance.'

One might argue that the primary difference between a democratic and authoritarian rule is that irrespective of how easily the common man can put food on his family’s table, important principles are upheld in the former— a universal franchise of all those contracted under a body politic.

However, it is precisely on the irrespectives that the issue ought to be erased. As utilitarian as it sounds, no system ought to prevail simply on principle alone, unless it practically distinguishes itself as qualitatively better form of reality. The differences between democracy and authoritarian regimes matter most to those who care about the constitution, and universal enfranchisement, and the notion of representation without taking into consideration all that it does not structurally encompass.

They do not take into consideration that principles do not fill stomachs; they do not prevent journalists from being murdered and entire villages being put to death (until the 25th Amendment in 2018) for the crime of one. Therefore, if the notion of ‘universal enfranchisement’ exists, it does so only in adulteration. Rates of high political apathy already show the alienation of the common man from the political system, the oppression of minorities and the systemic disenfranchisement of women from the political scene. Clearly, enfranchisement is limited to either those from a particular class, or a very brave heart — in Pakistan, the latter often join the ranks of those eventually disgruntled with the mess of the vote.

What is being argued is not that authoritarianism is better than democracy — or that principles of organization are utterly useless. Rather, what I am arguing is that for many on-ground, democracy can be as bad as authoritarianism.

This does not entirely mean that the system itself needs to be entirely discarded; there are constitutional safeguards with regards to the issue of true representation — the foremost being the envisaging of local governments in Pakistan.

It is forgotten often that Pakistan has a three-tiered federal system — Article 140-A mandates provincial governments to devolve “political, administrative and financial responsibility and authority to the elected representative of the local governments.” Technically, the local governments are responsible for carrying out the implementation of provincial laws — and within the ambit of the former, have their own executive and legislative capacity, albeit to a limited extent.

The purpose is obvious: it is recognized that in order for self-governance to truly function in a country as massively populated and conflicted as Pakistan, what is needed is democracy on a grassroots level, starting from the tehsil. Only then can we dream of a sufficient degree of accountability, tehsil to tehsil.

However, local governments have their own push-backs, the first and foremost being the political establishment itself. Aside from election delays and bureaucratic hurdles, it is not uncommon for local governments to be dismissed entirely. PTI did this recently in March 2021. Even more notable was the 2019 occasion when fifty-eight government officials were sent home packing after the indictment of the Punjab Local Government Act.

Unless and until these barriers are unmade, the era of meaningful representation – the backbone of any functional democracy – in which people exercise active grassroots agency instead of being delegated to passive participation — can never be ushered in.

Samaha Chaudhry is a student of law at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.