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Are We For A Democracy?

By 30 September 2009 No Comment

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Power to the people: The local government system is helping shrink the power gap between the rich and the poor. Photo: AFP.

Qaesra had lived a hard life in a small village, very close to the city of Qasur. She was determined to get her two sons and daughter educated, at least up to matric (although she had only completed primary herself) and improve their lives. She had earned quite a reputation in her village for siding with the weak and for always speaking the truth without fear, whether it was regarding a community sewerage project where the contractor hadn’t finished the job or a principal who was stealing money from the school funds. The community women liked her for encouraging young girls to do their best and going for the bigger challenges, even though she had to protect herself from her own abusive husband. Young housewives looked on with admiration when she argued with their husbands to get them permission to go to their mother’s home, to visit a friend or attend a mela. Even at the age of 50, her husband put her down at every available opportunity, but the community, especially women, respected her for who she was and what she had done for them.

When the time came for the Union Council elections in her village, some women pushed her to become a local councillor. At first Qaesra didn’t think of herself as a real leader, but eventually she realised that this was the most appropriate role for her to play because she had been doing just that for a very long time in her own community. As support for her candidacy grew among the villagers, the resistance came from those who were closest to her: her husband beat her up and her eldest son broke her arm for daring to think about becoming a leader.

The opposition from within her own family made Qaesra more determined than ever to persist with her plans. This primary-pass woman clearly understood that it was this resistance to change that prevented common people like herself to be a voice for many more like her. In a show of solidarity the women took up her campaign as a challenge to their womanhood. The fight was tough, but Qaesra won and her opponents had to back off.

The local bodies system that began in 2001 opened the doors for Qaesra and thousands of women and men who, previously, could not even think of stepping into positions of leadership in their community. Politics had always been an arena reserved for the most powerful class of the rich and the “pure.” The local bodies system suddenly became a door – and a possible ladder – to the corridors of power. A door that allowed women, labourers and poor farmers to step on to the path of becoming recognised leaders. Hitherto, no common person, regardless of how able, honest and wise he/she was, could dream of running in the provincial level elections. They could never rustle up the kind of money and contacts required to do that. But a poor person or an uneducated woman like Qaesra, who didn’t even have her family’s support, could step onto this path only because the LGO (Local Government Ordinance) 2001 had opened the door.

Those politicians who wish to see this arena of power and money continue to remain as their private domain, hate the local bodies system because it gives the common people of this country an opportunity to share in that power. They want no competitor to build up his experience at the local level. This could prove to be a stumbling bloc to their future generation’s dreams of acquiring fame and fortune. But it is not only the politicians who want to give the local bodies a thumbs down. There is another class of demi-gods in our land, who have always lived in palatial homes in the midst of poverty, with a fleet of Pajeros and an army of servants at their command. They belong to the District Management Group – the ACs, the DCs and the commissioners – and they hate the local bodies system because it has taken away their ‘right to rule,’ a right, they enjoy because they had passed an exam. These DMGs act as if the angrez had never left. They have behaved like outsiders in every community where they were posted. They were not from among the people and they were not selected by the people, yet they ruled with an iron fist.

Over the past eight years, the local bodies system has contributed to teaching real democracy to people from all walks of life. The process, despite its flaws, has groomed people to take their chances at elections at the higher representative tiers. Karachi’s own Mustafa Kamal seems to be one district nazim who is ready to take on the feudal clans for a seat in the provincial or national assemblies.

For the first time, this system has given people the opportunity to choose for themselves a leader who is close to them so that they can approach him/her for help to resolve their day-to-day problems. People have used the local leaders to resolve their family problems, local crimes as well as issues related to development schemes and public service delivery. This system also has an accountability system, which the commissioner system never had. If the local leaders do not perform, there is the likelihood that they will not be elected again. If the commissioner fails in his duty, he merely moves on to another district or back to the secretariat.

In Pakistan, the rich and the powerful have always attempted to create myths around the real problems and cover them up with lies if they fear that their power could be eroded. They are capable of churning out any story or go to any lengths if they feel threatened that the gap between the ruling class and the common people is being diminished. They know that their lifestyles would never be able to withstand the full onslaught of democracy. This is why all the provincial assemblies oppose the continuation of the local bodies system. No matter what myths they create about corruption or poor performance, the real reason is that they simply cannot tolerate the idea of sharing their ‘right to rule,’ a right, in their eyes, bequeathed to them – and them alone – by the angrez.

We applaud the provincial governments when they fight against dictatorship at the federal level. We support provincial autonomy. But we can’t understand why these provincial defenders of democracy are only too willing to restore the dictatorship of the commissioner at the local level. They want their own rights for democratic governance, but do not want to give the same to the third tier of government, which is specified in the constitution. They hate to be under the rule of a dictator, but are quite anxious to rule through one who can claim his actions are based on the ‘rule of law.’

The constitution says that the provinces are responsible for establishing the local bodies. The provincial governments should be ashamed of themselves for doing everything they can to avoid fulfilling this constitutional responsibility. The federal courts should take a stand and force the provinces to hold local bodies elections. The Constitutional Reform Committee should ensure that the third tier of government is clearly defined, its responsibilities spelt out and direct elections for all posts, on a party basis, should be mandated just as it is for the provincial assemblies.

If the third tier is to be dissolved and replaced by appointed ‘brown sahibs’ then why have democracy at the second and the first tier? Surely, the DMG officers, who have passed such rigorous exams and proven their value at the local level, can just as easily run the provinces and the federal government? Isn’t that how the British system worked? Why do we need to have untutored feudals with limited experience, less education and no scruples elected as our representatives? We either argue for the principle of democratic governance or we don’t. At some point in our history, we have to stop allowing the political and bureaucratic elite to run this country as if it were their own private playground.

Dr Fouzia Saeed is a social activist.


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