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EDITORIAL: It should not really take years of deliberation by the highest court in the land to impress upon politicians and political parties the centrality of local governments in a working democracy.

Yet nine years after MQM-P (Muttahida Qaumi Movement-Pakistan) petitioned the Supreme Court (SC) against the Sindh Local Governments Act (SLGA) 2013, and 16 months after the apex court reserved its judgement, it finally ruled that the Sindh government was bound to set up empowered local bodies in keeping with Article 140-A of the constitution and nullified sections 74 and 75 of the Act because they contradicted it.

The provincial government will have to ensure compliance, but it seems the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) government in Karachi is still bent upon opting for a review of parts of the order that, it says, aren’t very clear.

There should no longer be any doubt in any party’s mind that provincial governments cannot draw master plans or implement them without the consent of local governments. Political parties in Pakistan like to make tall claims about empowering the grassroots in their manifestos, but tend to avoid such things when they come to power because they prefer to keep finances and authority with themselves.

Now the top court has had to translate the constitution for them all over again, even though it took its sweet time in doing it, and hopefully, necessary action from all quarters will be prompt and without much fuss.

The matter under consideration was about one particular province but it appears, as some PPP ministers seemed to think in the immediate aftermath of the order, that it will apply to all provincial governments in the federation. No sense in going through the same process in all provinces, after all, so all attention must turn to electing and empowering local bodies up and down the country.

Broken down democracies improve only when the elected can be held accountable by voters. The most effective way of doing it is in the third tier of democracy, where politicians and political workers interact directly with the people that they answer to at the polls. And nothing like the fear of the axe to keep public office holders in line.

It almost beggars belief that Pakistan’s political construct still struggles with this obvious fact; even though it is written in black and white in the constitution. The sections of SLGA that have been invalidated relate to transfer of functions from councils to governments and vice versa, and commercial schemes, and MQM-P argued that PPP enacted the Act in 2013 to take control of devolved departments by amending these sections.

Now, after the SC ruling, PPP is left with some egg on its face and it will not wash away by simply saying that the party stuck to Article 140-A of the constitution while doing all that. Other major parties are not much different and do what they can, when they can, to kick the can of local government elections down the road and are often forced to hold them by the honourable courts.

It says a lot that the only time Pakistan really had a representative, empowered local bodies setup was when a so-called military dictator was president. For all the controversies associated with him, General Musharraf was the only leader who wasn’t really obsessed with keeping all the power and money with the top two tiers, and gladly devolved them right to the people’s doorsteps. Then democratic parties came back and took it all away.

Our political parties can no longer afford to present fancy arguments that are meant only to consolidate power and funds with themselves because the system can no longer afford it. People now need a lot more than lectures about the merits of democracy to overcome repeated disappointments with the system of representative government. It is time to bring democracy to their districts and union councils. Hopefully, the SC verdict will prove to be the last push needed in this direction.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2022

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