Punjab’s new local government act: An interesting mix of ideas

Punjab’s previous local government system, introduced by the Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N), was arguably an exercise in the centralisation of power; potentially with a view towards entrenching itself even more firmly within the institutional framework of the province’s politics.

The PML-N's approach to local government essentially served to make them extensions of the provincial government by granting the former limited revenue and taxation powers, leaving them dependent on the Punjab government for funding. The provincial lawmakers further retained the power to discipline and dismiss the local government through the newly established Local Government Commission. The push towards centralising power also included subjecting every tier of local government to bureaucratic oversight, and creating a system of representation in which a combination of indirect elections to tehsil and district governments, combined with a significant proportion of ‘nominated’ members at every level, ensured that the political party winning the most seats at the village or neighbourhood level (the only tier selected through direct elections) would essentially control the entire system of local government in any given district. Furthermore, the party-based nature of local elections and the control exercised by the provincial government meant that both candidates and voters would have an incentive to align themselves with the party in power in Punjab. The new Local Government Act (LGA), passed by the Punjab Assembly earlier this week, represents an attempt to undo this centralisation. It is best understood in conjunction with the changes introduced by the new Panchayat and Village Councils Act (PVCA) that has also been passed. Under the provisions of the LGA, there will now be a single tier of elected local government at the tehsil/town level with a directly elected mayor and councilors selected on the basis of a closed-list proportional representation system. Parties and ‘electoral groups’ – potentially made up of civic associations or collections of independent politicians – will provide lists of candidates for each multi-member electoral constituency, and voters will then vote for these parties or groups, with the seats then being allocated to candidates on the lists in proportion to the number of votes their parties/groups receive. Seats will also be reserved for women, non-Muslims, workers and peasants, and the youth, and will be allocated using the same electoral principle. Mayoral candidates, who can be nominated by parties or groups, will be elected on the basis of a simple majority (similar to how candidates are elected during general elections). The law includes provisions for penalising candidates who defect from their parties or groups after being elected. In addition to these new tehsil/town councils, the PVCA introduces the concept of local village and neighbourhood assemblies to Punjab. These will be comprised of the entire resident population of a given village or neighbourhood, who will meet on a regular basis, and will have the power to make demands of, and expect explanations from, the individuals elected to the newly constituted village panchayats and neighbourhood councils. The members of these local councils – including a chairperson and those on general and reserved seats – will be elected on a non-party basis, with candidates being awarded seats on the basis of the number of votes they receive. The actual functions of local government will be performed by the panchayats and neighbourhood councils; in addition to providing public services related to the maintenance of infrastructure and sanitation, and undertaking inspections to ensure official regulations are followed, the panchayats and councils will be able to take on any responsibilities that are delegated to them by the Tehsil and Town governments. Introducing the principle of proportional representation to local government is a welcome move. Evidence from around the world shows that PR systems tend to provide the space for smaller parties and less visible candidates to enter the political system, something that would be denied to them in traditional first-past-the-post voting. Similarly, ensuring that local government representatives are directly elected at all levels promises to make the new system more democratic and participatory than the ones the preceded it. This is particularly true when considering the proposed role to be played by local assemblies, which represent a mechanism through which to foster greater civic engagement by ordinary citizens. If there is a problem here, it lies in the non-party based nature of the panchayat and neighbourhood council elections; scholars who have looked at the history of local government in Pakistan have repeatedly pointed out that non-party based elections have usually served to weaken political parties, particularly at the provincial level, by empowering an independent tier of government free to choose its political alliances. Historically, under military governments, this has allowed dictators and their regimes in Pakistan to undercut opposition parties at the provincial level. Even otherwise, the absence of formal party affiliations does not necessarily mean a lack of party loyalties or allegiances, and it is easy to see how the non-partisan nature of the elections could simply lead to ‘independent’ candidates winning and choosing to align themselves with the party in power at the provincial level. Indeed, this is precisely what happened when the large percentage of ‘independents’ elected in the 2015 Punjab local government elections simply switched to the PML-N once the dust settled. The problem is compounded by how the Local Government Commission retains the power to dismiss and discipline local governments, and bureaucratic oversight will continue to be exercised by a ‘Chief Officer’ appointed by the provincial government. Even here, however, there are some breaks with the previous law; six of the eleven members of the Local Government Commission will not be formally aligned with the government (being a combination of Opposition and MPAs and independent, non-elected experts), and the head of a local government will be able to comment on the annual performance of their Chief Officer. Another area in which the new local governments will differ from their predecessors is the scope of their funding and powers. Under the terms of the new Act, Punjab’s local governments will have a guaranteed entitlement to 26-28 per cent of the province’s general revenue receipts (10 per cent of which will go to the panchayats and neighbourhood councils). This is in contrast with past practice, when the provincial government had the discretion to reduce funding to local governments on a variety of pretexts. Similarly, the provision of guaranteed, rule-based funding to the local governments should mean that elected representatives at that level will have more bargaining power vis-à-vis MNAs and MPAs whose access to development funds often provided them with a considerable amount of leverage over the former. Measures have also been introduced that will induce tehsil and town governments to improve their revenue collection and service provision in exchange for greater funding from the provincial government. These fiscal reforms have been accompanied by the devolution of more power to the local governments; for example, they will now have more control over areas like education, which despite being ‘devolved’ in the past had essentially remained under the control of provincial bureaucrats through bodies like the now-defunct District Education Authorities, and will also wield greater control over local development authorities that were previously retained under provincial control. The net result of these two changes – a larger share of provincial funding and more devolved responsibilities – means that the new local governments are expected to receive up to ten times more funding than the ones they are replacing. The LGA and PVCA represent an interesting mix of ideas. Proportional representation, directly elected mayors, village assemblies, greater fiscal entitlements, and increased devolution, all represent measures through which the system can be made more inclusive, responsive, and democratic. However, the non-partisan nature of village and neighbourhood elections and the maintenance of some mechanisms allowing the provincial government to exercise control over local governments means that the progressive potential of the new laws may be blunted if tensions emerge between the different tiers of government.
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