On Wednesday, Balochistan conducted the final phase of local government elections and have elected their Mayor and Deputy Mayor for Quetta. This is a great achievement for a province which is suffering at the hands of terrorists who brought the country to a standstill a few days prior, by destroying a power pipeline. On the other side of the country, while the Prime Minister has become the de facto Mayor of Islamabad, focusing on the metro bus and Murree rail schemes; the military once again has filled the vacuum of ideas and leadership in Pakistan at a critical point in time. They are involved in affairs which, in better managed and better governed countries, would fall under the purview of the police force and politicians. The way the military chief is being received and honored from John Kerry to the Chinese political leadership seems to suggest they also see who is in charge and soon it seems a Sharif will replace a Sharif. The story is not new – the population gets weary of waiting for the burgeoning fruits that democracy is meant to deliver, gets sick of a cabal leadership who focus on the self-aggrandisement of power, and they welcome the army takeover. Welcome, because they think the weak governance and inefficiency will be over and their lives might improve. So each time, they celebrate the democratic baby being thrown out with the bathwater.

For the past year we have seen politicians – especially from the two major parties, PPP and PML-N- self congratulate each other for achieving a peaceful democratic transfer of power. But, hitherto these two parties are responsible for not allowing the further deepening of the democratic roots in the system. Local governments, which are an essential triad of the democratic setup, are being obstructed by the Punjab and Sindh provincial governments over the past five years. One pretext or the other is given for their delay including security reasons. The Supreme Court has once again in its latest hearing on the case, instructed the two provinces, Punjab and Sindh, to get the necessary amendments to their local Government Acts and give authenticated demarcation maps to allow the ECP to conduct elections.

Pakistan needs local governments because they are an essential third tier in the political system that sustains and nurtures the democratic setup; whilst also helping to make it more participatory and inclusive. A properly instituted local government system indeed determines whether democracy survives in testing times. The reason being that the concept of democracy is no longer tied up only around the persona of the PM and his government and its performance – in the past, this has meant that when we have seen corruption and inefficiency due to the governing clique - it gets correlated with democracy being inadequate. When there are many tiers of decision making and multiple office holders, it becomes more difficult to denounce democracy, when the other tiers are performing on the back of one corrupt or inefficient government.

Local government elections help to incorporate plurality and diversity in society, as tens of thousands of political players are elected by their local populations to make decisions that directly affect their daily lives, with more officials coming from lower and middle income households as well as minorities and women. Since these individuals are from the communities they have to serve, they understand local issues and needs better than someone sitting in Islamabad or a district capital. They have to sit and eat with these people where they are held directly responsible for local service planning and delivery as well as any failures making them much more accountable as well as ensuring more transparent decision making.

Introduction of local government officials is important as currently national and provincial parliamentarians spend a huge amount of their time engaged in municipal issues, such as building roads and hospitals, taking them away from the actual roles they have been elected for. A FAFEN report put their attendance in parliament during the budget session at 52 percent; parliamentary proceedings are very often left half done since there is no quorum. Take away kutcheri politics and we may see an improvement in attendance rates, improvements in policy legislation and some thought on the Pakistani narrative and vision to address internal, regional and global issues.

So if local government elections are another bulwark to democracy, why are they not being held? Well one reason is that the parliamentary representative we want to give a bigger role to is actually very happy doing what he is. He has spent crores of rupees to get elected, while the basic salary of a parliamentarian is around 50,000 rupees, and he wants it back. No doubt some do it for public service but there are others who want to recoup the money they have spent to win; recovered through various development schemes launched in their constituencies or by the ability to implement transfers or postings. Why would they appreciate more players vying for these perks of the job?

At the party level, local government elections worries the political leadership since it creates a whole new set of leaders who would not necessarily be dependent on them and with time may come to the national and provincial assemblies. Furthermore, if local government elections are held now, they will be seen as mid-term elections, which if captured by opposition parties, would reflect dissatisfaction with the government’s performance. In addition, local government officials could go on to use their administrative and financial resources against the party in power especially when conducting future general elections.

The fact that local elections will create another set of political players is something the bureaucracy doesn’t like either, since it further cuts into their administrative and magisterial powers that were once vested in them; the Tarzan of the jungle already feels castrated after the break-up of the DMG group and what the local government act in 2001 did to their authority.

So there is little hope that by the next hearing scheduled by the Supreme Court for 12 February, the provincial governments will fall into line. Let’s hope the Supreme Court takes a stronger line to ensure the remaining provincial governments give suzerainty to the People of Pakistan.

The writer is a Director at Governance & Policy Advisors.