Civil society gasping for life | By Riaz Missen


Civil society gasping for life 

ELITE democracy seems to have reached the stage where it can no more evade the question of devolving power to the grassroots level.

Beginning has been made by KP and the rest of the provinces will certainly follow the suit to fulfil their constitutional responsibility. Hopefully, the constitutionally mandated third tier of government will be finally in place across the country during this year.

Ruling parties, desperate to perpetuate and consolidate their dynastic rule, are least interested in restoring liberties, which the colonial masters snatched away of people. They have known and expressed tendency to deny power and resources to the people at the grassroots level.

If left to their own devises, they would like to gain as much time as possible and delay the process, as has been the case since 2010, when the Constitution was amended para-wise and the federal units were granted unprecedented autonomy.

Despite their constitutional obligations to establish politically, finically and administratively independent and autonomous local governments (Article 140-A), the provincial governments have used delaying tactics to both holding elections and doing necessary legislative work.

The reason for hostility towards structures considered crucial for the fulfilment of fundamental rights, restoring liberties and assuming the course of sustainable socio-economic development, is the primordial way of thinking particular with feudal societies like Pakistan.

So, it’s not strange that the dynastic parties assuming power in 2008, rendered the local governments dysfunctional.

After securing unprecedented autonomy for provinces, the first job they did was to pack off semi-independent local governments and delay elections for half a decade. When the polls were held on the order of the Supreme Court, only paralyzed structures were delivered.

If matters had moved in the right direction, further reforms would have been undertaken to make the Musharraf-installed system more efficient rather than abolishing the third tier of government. The provincial finance commissions were never constituted to disburse development funds under the formula agreed through 18th Constitutional Amendment.

For decades, wealth has concentrated in few hands. Cities fell into disarray and poverty and disease menacingly threatened the livelihood of millions. The majority of people lost access to even clean water and air quality of major cities deteriorated.

The remote areas could not only avail their share of funding the provinces also handed over the sectors like education and health to the lust of private sector. A regulatory regime could not be evolved to ensure quality of the services attached with these crucial subjects.

Local governments could have played a key role in achieving globally-sanctioned sustainable development goals (SDGs) to improve living standards, eliminating hunger and disease without distinction, but the opportunity was missed merely for the reason that it did not suit the interest of the few hundred families dominating both the economy and politics of the country.

The Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) which formed government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa after the 2013 elections and installed local governments there, failed to do so when it won Punjab and Centre in 2018.

Imran Khan had said on the occasion of the merger of the Front for South Punjab Province into PTI that although it was a difficult for his party to create new provinces, it was easy to uplift the deprived regions through local governments.

None of the promise has been fulfilled so far. There is still the possibility of throwing the spanner in the works and delaying the municipal elections.

The government has made the provision of funds to the Election Commission conditional on voting through electronic machines and is also acknowledging the PPP’s concerns for a new census. There is another problem and if it is understood then it is very worrying.

The last thirteen years of elite democracy have left civil society half dead. Thousands of civil society organizations working for the provision of fundamental to the weak and the marginalized sections of the society have been crippled due to closure of funds from outside and lack of encouragement from the provincial and federal governments.

Political parties have fuelled divisions within the ranks and files of civil society by promising seats in legislative bodies to their leadership. Organizations working on health, education and the environment have been strangled by capitalists.

FAFEN, a coalitions of civil society organizations, which established its credibility to observer election and to see if the political parties were not securing votes through intimidation is facing divisions in its ranks.

Its former Secretary General and founding member, Sarwar Bari, went public in November last year emphasizing on the need to ‘observe the observers’. The FIA is actively looking into the charges that the election observing group was an integral part of the electoral fraud committed during 2013 elections.

Controversy is raging over projects launched with foreign aid without the permission of the Economic Affairs Division.Civil society has become hopelessly paralysed. If elections are held tomorrow and they are rigged, as before, then there is none stand in the way of elite’s lust for power.

A civil society organization recently conducted a constituency survey before the by-elections for the National Assembly seat in Lahore and claimed to have found the impeccable evidence that the dynastic parties were buying and selling votes without impunity.

When the by-elections were held on the provincial seat of Khanewal, the same situation came to light there as well. Vote buying in the Senate elections is already an open secret. The difference is the social status of the vote sellers. The first case is about the rich, the second about the poor.

If the allegations against FAFEN, levelled by none but the two-time elected Secretary General and founding member of it, prove to be true, the reputation of the only credible election observing group will be ruined and its remaining sources of funding will dry as well.

Local Government elections, which will set the direction of the polity and have lasting impact on the outcome of the next general election, there seems to be no mechanism in place to check the conduct of political parties while the lack democracy within.

All this being the case, there is Turkish saying that in order to understand a crisis, just have a look at its beneficiaries — the local mafias in collaboration with their international partners have a great stake in anarchy and lawlessness.

—The writer is politico-strategic analyst based in Islamabad.


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