The importance given by the Pakistan Tehrik Insaf (PTI) to the local bodies reflects not only the importance given to them by the PML(N), but also by the military. It is instructive that one of the first steps taken by the Punjab government is to approve a new local bodies structure, and it is further instructive that the changes approved will revert the system to something like that approved by the Musharraf government, which introduced the concept of district governments.

The military has historically shown an interest in the local bodies. Indeed, the first martial law, that of Ayub Khan, based its entire edifice on the local bodies, which it called Basic Democracies. Councillors, in addition to their usual functions, were called Basic Democrats, and acted as the Electoral College for provincial and national assemblies, and the President. They were also used in the referendum held to approve the 1962 Constitution. The ordinary voter only voted directly for a councillor, and had nothing to do with the other offices. As transpired, the electors were easily manipulated, being few in number, and themselves office-holders, and thus part of the official hierarchy.

Under Yahya Khan, and then Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the local bodies went into the background. However, they bounced back with a vengeance under Ziaul Haq, with the 1979 elections to them offered as a sort of substitute for the national and provincial polls he cancelled. He used the local bodies thus elected in place of the higher legislatures, and unleashed a new generation into the political arena. When he held national and provincial elections in 1985, these councillors graduated, and became MNAs and MPAs. A key factor, which did not survive, was permeability: one could be both a councillor and a member. Perhaps the most insidious tangle was that of Ch Pervez Elahi, who was Chairman of the Gujrat district council, as well as an MPA and the Local Government Minister, and thus responsible for supervising all councils– including his own.

After 1985, and into the 1990s, Mian Nawaz Sharif used the local bodies not just as a training ground for party ticket-holders, but as a basis for awarding those tickets. Often tickets for a provincial or national seat would be decided on the basis of which ticket holder could produce the most councillors. There was logic behind this: councillors controlled the election machinery in their area, and one could only be elected to an assembly by combining enough small electoral machines. However, this meant the conversion of the local bodies into a sort of adjunct of the PML(N). That meant that if another party took office, it would not be content to let the local bodies continue undisturbed, but try and change the system.

When a PML(J)-PPP coalition took office in the Punjab, it suspended the local councils. It was only when the military took over under Gen Pervez Musharraf that there was a thorough revision of the local bodies, with the introduction of district governments, whereby certain departments were transferred from the provincial governments to the districts. The idea was to make a number of decisions hitherto taken at the provincial level the responsibility of the districts. The divisional tier was abolished, and a mechanism was set up whereby the provinces were made to transfer the major part of their budgets to the provinces. The district heads were elected by the councils, an interesting feature of which was the end of separate municipalities, while tehsil councils were created too. A councillor would be chairman of his union council, as well as member of the tehsil council (responsible for electing the tehsil nazim) and of the district council (responsible for electing the district nazim).

The military has always seen local bodies as a means of strengthening democracy. ‘Strengthening democracy’ has usually meant making the system more like that of England. English local councils are supposed to be exemplary, and to act as training grounds for Parliament. As the military has refined its thinking, it has moved to empowering the local bodies, and now seems to want the provinces to give up some of their powers. It should be noted that provinces are the oldest form of government for the Raj, and local bodies are governed by provincial statutes, not federal. They therefore possess control over delivery of traditional services, including the justice system, education and health.

The local bodies should have been restored when the Constitution was restored in 2008, but the PPP’s Sindh government was not interested in restoring a system which meant that Karachi, Hyderabad and other cities were out of its control. There were difficulties in Punjab as well, with MPAs resisting devolution. The PTI faced similar issues in KP. The reason seems to have been that the MPAs did not like losing the authority over bread-and-butter issues that the previous system gave them. Chief Ministers did not exactly leap to give up authority. Sindh and Punjab restored the old system, as did KP, and elections were conducted on that basis. One change was retained: elections were conducted by the federal Election Commission rather than the old provincial local election authorities.

Now that provincial elections put the PTI in office in Punjab, the local bodies, which mostly had PML(N) majorities, were doomed. However, the new local body system shows signs that the PTI wants to bring back a modified district government system. One of the first things that the PTI provincial government has done is prepare a new local government law, which has only to get through the Cabinet and the Punjab Assembly to become binding. The new law provides for the direct election of mayors and district council chairmen on party basis, as well as the devolution of significant powers from the provincial government.

More importantly, 30 percent of the provincial development funds would go to the local councils. This parallels the allocation of development funds to MPAs and MNAs. This caused heartburn in the past, because it was seen as bringing legislators down to local government level, and also providing a means of corruption, as legislators ensured that contracts were awarded to contractors of their choice, in exchange for a cut. Now, at least some of that money will go to local councillors.

Another important provision is the abandoning of the tehsil tier. That will be ironic coming from a government headed by a chief minister who started his political career as the tehsil nazim of Taunsa Sharif. It is worth noting that Usman Buzdar is not the first person to start in a local council and rise to be Punjab chief minister. While Mian Nawaz Sharif did not ever contest a councillorship, his successors all did. The late Ghulam Haider Wyne had been Chairman of the Mian Channu Municipal Committee, Manzoor Wattooo had been Chairman of Okara District Counil and Ch Pervez Elahi had been Chairman of Gujrat District Council. Mian Shehbaz Sharif had never been a councillor, but he started his political career at President of the PML Lahore Metropolitan, which corresponded to the Lahore Municipal Corporation.

In Pakistan, the local bodies are most important in Punjab, not just because it is the country’s largest province, but because control of the local councils means control of the machine, especially in rural areas. The PML(N) tried to use them as the platform for their electoral strategy. That helped make it a party of office, which was joined by winners of local office not because of ideological affinity, but because it had won power. The PTI seems to be following that strategy, which is not surprising, because it has the same military backers which advised the PML(N) when it was growing. Its success in hanging on to its powerbase will indicate whether the PTI can do the same when it is no longer flavour of the month.


n          The writer is a veteran journalist and founding member as well as executive editor of The Nation.