Democracy and empowerment

Dr Mustaghis-ur-Rahman
April 15, 2015

Pakistan’s champions of democracy only remember the game of numbers when it comes to democracy and forget Aristotle’s principles of ‘equalitarian liberty’ and ‘to govern and be governed’. Both principles refer to the freedom of an individual and group of people who can opt for governing their socio-political affairs in accordance to their likes and dislikes, aesthetics and idiosyncrasies within the ambit of the law of the land.

Democracy in Pakistan has entered its second, term after completing its first uninterrupted tenure in the last ten years. In the last two consecutive elections, loss has been the fate of the majority of citizens at the local level. In the past, the right to govern by the communities themselves was withdrawn by rolling back the Local Government Ordinance 2001. In the future too no resolve by the major political parties (with the exception of the MQM’s manifesto and rhetoric) is in sight for community participation in governance.

The reason is that we are stuck at that phase of Athenian democracy which lacked the concept of participation in a true sense (as women, captive and free slaves, and citizens below 30 years of age were excluded from the election process). Thus the majority of Athenians were deprived of participation in matters of governance. The difference today in Pakistan is that here we impose the rule of political elites from top to bottom, leaving little room for ‘demos’ to decide what kind of development is in their interest and what is not.

Military regimes, without any exception, time and again, introduced ‘democracy’ at the lowest tier of governance and the champions of democracy dismantled or suppressed the same again and again. What an irony! In the very recent political history of Pakistan, the democrats withdrew the people’s right to rule and manage their own affairs at the grassroots level. The present government is also moving unwillingly towards the election of local government despite the highest court’s unambiguous order to hold them within the next few months.

Instead of blaming the politicians of malintention, I would give them the benefit of doubt for their ignorance of the prerequisites of good governance. Good governance is a function of people’s participation in the affairs of the state by practising political rights and duties at a local level. They are unaware that the autonomous local government systems have brought about a silent revolution across the world. Lord Ripon in 1882 implemented local governance under the municipalities systems to bring people closer to the government. India further made local government more community oriented in 1993 under the title ‘Panchayati Raj’ by extending the concept of self rule up to the villages’ level.

The local government system is common in other developed Asian countries, Europe, and the US. In the Scandinavian countries, Sweden has three levels of domestic government: national, regional and local. France has four tiers of governance – centre, region, department and commune. The US has divided states into counties, cities, towns, boroughs, and villages as per the aspirations of its states. As of 2014, there were 89,055 local government units in the United States. The leaders of autonomous local governments are either on the path of development or have acquired the status of developed societies.

On the contrary, there are examples of the countries that face political turmoil and social upheavals due to centralised and top down governance. In this reference, examples of African countries, the Arabian Peninsula, and some of the Asian countries are very much there.

In the shortest period of five years (2002 to 2008) the three tiered local government has produced excellent results in Pakistan where there was able leadership. Reaching out to communities by the local leaders and infrastructure development in Karachi, Hyderabad, Khairpur and parts of Peshawar are testimonies of the potential of the autonomous three tiered local governments operated under the LGO 2001. Influenced by Karachi’s development in a short span of time, the mayor of Birmingham city in the UK unveiled a three-tier local government plan in 2010.

Musharraf might have done some undesirable things to this country but ‘devolution of power’ under LGO 2001 cannot be ignored because of his other misdeeds. The system of local government that he introduced was not allowed to work in the period of the last democratic governments (federal and provincial) because of the the then rulers partisanship.

Apart from grassroots development, an autonomous three-tier local government is also a deterrent to civil unrest as it provides a platform for citizens to vent out their grievances, if they have any, at the local level. And especially, in Pakistan where the provinces are multiethnic with polarised stands for their identity and widespread deprivation because of the numeric dominance of some communities over others, there is a need to provide maximum opportunity to people to manage their affairs at the grassroots level. This will create healthy competition among communities as well as the elected leadership at the local levels.

At the same time involvement of people in their own socio-political affairs helps them develop a sense of ownership towards their villages, tehsils, towns, cities, provinces and towards Pakistan as a whole which further strengthens the federation. For this reason we need to let democracy be truly participatory at all administrative levels.

The writer is a professor of management sciences at Indus University, Karachi.


Published in The News Int.