Taking democracy to the doorsteps of citizens

Uncertainty looms over the revival of local governments in Pakistan. Article 140(A) of the Constitution provides the basis and framework for local governments. The constitutional provision for local governments provides assurance that even if the process is delayed, but it cannot be denied indefinitely. Democracy in Pakistan is still in a transitional phase, mainly because of frequent interruptions in the past. Evolving from a mere electoral ritual into a robust democratic practice, the process is bound to go through birth pains.

An elected government recently completed a five-year mandate amidst unremitting tumult. This transition and the overwhelming participation of the masses in the 2013 elections signify a deeply entrenched thirst for democracy among the citizens. This thirst, however, was not quenched by elections for parliament and the provincial assemblies. The people of Pakistan want democracy to trickle down to the grassroots level.

For the average citizen, democracy commences with voting and culminates in the delivery of public services and rule of law. Only a functional local government system can fulfil these aspirations. Considering the alarming deficit of basic services, which the Constitution guarantees as basic rights, a robust local government is essential to addressing those constraints that prevent the achievement of universal human development.

Pakistan’s human development indicators are low by international standards and in comparison with other countries in the region. UNDP’s Human Development Index 2013 ranked Pakistan at 146 out of 187 countries. On a number of human development indicators, Pakistan lags behind most other countries in the South Asian region. The country is set to fall short on most of its Millennium Development Goal (MDG) targets. Education, health, gender equality, youth development, human rights and employment are among the areas in need of urgent attention.

A country confronting the daunting challenges of terrorism, poverty, ethnic and political schism and natural disasters needs a decentralised governance structure to adequately respond. A transparent, accountable and empowered local government system can contribute to promoting human development by bridging the development deficit, providing social safety nets and bringing the state to the citizens.

Participation is a key element of any democracy. Indeed, the true spirit of democracy will be realised only if ordinary citizens have the opportunity to participate in the decision-making process. A common citizen may not seek participation in foreign policy affairs, but would legitimately desire to participate in decisions related to local public services, such as a neighbourhood school or a clinic, in order to maximise benefits to the community.

An empowered and aware citizenry is the ultimate bulwark of democracy. Decentralization of the democratic process strengthens democracy by developing citizens’ ownership of the system. For a citizen, a democracy controlled by the elite is not very different from a dictatorship. Local government provides a forum that enables the participation of politically-dispossessed segments of society, strengthening the relationship between citizens and the state.

The people of Pakistan have endured long periods of non-participation and have undertaken a long journey in search of democracy. The establishment of local governments is an important milestone in that journey. The elected governments are obliged to establish local governments in accordance with the Constitution of Pakistan, and to fulfil the aspirations of the people of Pakistan.

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