Local government vs. provincial government

Purely by coincidence, I read two very closely-related items tonight. The first was this paper (PDF) by Arshad Habib weighing the pros and cons of devolution and local government, specifically in Pakistan. Basically his thesis is that this is a great idea in theory but unfortunately in Pakistan has tended to be a tool in the hands of military dictators to increase their power at the expense of the provincial government. This was particularly true in the case of Ayub Khan’s Basic Democracies Ordinance of 1959, which, according to the author ended up being very reminiscent of the colonial rule:

This was the period of high economic indicators in Pakistan whereas political participation was touching the lowest ebb. The absence of common people from politics proved fatal and created one of the greatest instability in the history of Pakistan.

By comparison, Musharraf’s devolution of plan of 2000 was more promising since it involved bringing district administration under an elected representative unlike the four-tiered indirectly elected representatives of Ayub’s time. Other plus points were devolving more expenditure to the local level and reservations of seats for women and other disadvantaged groups. Unfortunately, the major disadvantage was that most of the devolution came at the expensive of the provincial government which made the centre disproportionately strong. That’s what brings me to the second item which was this report in The News of Bashir Ahmed Bilour’s statements today about how he believes that the local government system introduced in Musharraf’s time has been a major contributing factor to the weakness of the current NWFP provincial government:

Speaking as chief guest at a consultation workshop for parliamentarians on local government reforms here Thursday, Bilour said it has been acknowledged that most of the powers and resources of the provincial government were devolved to the lower level, but same was not done in case of the federal government level as per the local government ordinance.

This was interesting to me because usually one thinks of a conflict between the federal and provincial governments, but as it turns out, local government can end up adversely affecting provincial autonomy, as well.

UPDATE: I uploaded this report by The International Crisis Group about the Local Government Ordinance of 2001 (it’s available for free on their website, but requires registration).


9 responses to “Local government vs. provincial government

  1. takhalus

    there is a reason for the clash between LG’s and provincial ones. Simply put it’s uneqyal distribution of powers. The federal govt has the powers of the province and the province has powers of a local gov so when it’s powers were devolved it’s power was reduced even more. The Bilours have more personal reasons to oppose the system..one of the Bilours lost the last local election to an MMA candidate who outspent them despite the ANP’s success in the local elections.

  2. you’ve finally put that ugly look behind!

  3. Rabia

    takhalus: I agree, devolution simply made the existing imbalance worse

    karachi khatmal: heh, I guess I am the only one who liked the old look.

  4. AKS

    Of course the local government system strips away power from the provincial government, if that wasn’t the case then the MQM wouldn’t have been as happy as it had been under the Mush era.

    I’m rather conflicted about what I prefer. Musharraf’s devolution plan did wonders for Karachi and changed the landscape of this city (literally).

    But the devolution plan worked in Karachi because of three important factors: 1) we had two very able leaders, in Mustafa Kamal and Naimatullah Khan, who came into power; 2) from 1999-2006 the PPP was emaciated, thus there was much less friction; and 3) during the same period the core population of Karachi prospered, which I would contend led them to demand more from their government.

    The confluence of these three factors was sadly missing from much of the country. The introduction of LG in these areas gave power to regional tribal / feudal leaders, without binding them to the oversight of the provincial government. Moreover, in some cases LG gave power to non-affiliated tribal leaders and in these cases not only was there no control by the provincial government, but also no oversight by a major political party – e.g. loss of a Bilour to a member of the MMA.

    In essence the local government structure can only work in areas where the population has a larger stake in the state and where non-state power structures are weak. Therefore, in my opinion, the only areas suited for Local Governments in Pakistan are also the most prosperous: urban Punjab and urban Sindh.

  5. AKS


    When I say “most prosperous” I mean areas where the population at large is more prosperous. The green belt of Sindh may generate more income but that income is in the hands of a few. Therefore by urban Sindh I only mean Hyderabad and Karachi.

  6. takhalus

    AKS there is no perfect system to solve all problems. The question is the intent behind it..I am sure the BD’s of Ayub Khan had some success stories in the beginning so did Zia’s system..but the legacy they left behind was something else in itself..they created a vacuum on the tier above meaning provincial politics because political parties were excluded. That vacuum created opportunities for local politicians to get on a provincial and national stage. That created a generation of power broker politicians who strengthened the patronage system (most PML-Q’ers are a case in point)

    In terms of which areas suit I disagree with your prosperus comment..Peshawar till the 1970’s was Human Development indicator wise one of the best performing cities in Pakistan. The discriminating factor between districts ( and provinces) is financial independence. Karachi (despite the LG’s limited tax powers) has access to more revenues than other districts..80-90% of all other districts and 3 out of four provinces are totally dependant on the province/federation for resource distribution. Originally the NFC and PFC (there was also supposed to be district finance commission in the original LG plan) were supposed to guarantee provinces and districts an income..the reality again is that rarely happens. Hence most LG’s and provinces are resource starved.

  7. One harmful last-minute change in 2001 (from the NRB’s original devolution plan) was that district Nazims would be elected indirectly by the Union Council Nazims which makes it a lot easier for the federal government to manipulate the election of the district Nazim. So even though on paper Musharraf’s devolution did promise direct elections (as opposed to the BDs), this didn’t end up being true in practice.

    btw, takhalus, is this the local election you were referring to before?

    also, I uploaded a report by the International Crisis Group which I thought was relevant to the discussion. The parts about fiscal devolution and police devolution especially.

  8. takhalus

    Rabia yes that’s true..like the senates indirect elections the small electoral college allows those with deep enough pockets or access to government resources an advantage. I believe another change done before the last elections was the getting rid of the run off elections.

    And yes thats the same election i was referring too..and no the election was not driven by tribal voting neither winner in the end was of a specific tribe or caste ..it was who could spend and manouvere the best.

    P.s: One estimate i recall stated that out of the total revenue collected in Pakistan only 10% was collected by the provinces and 2% by the districts.

  9. AKS, I love how you leave more insightful comments here than our own blog. Idiot.

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