Pakistan Local Government Elections: Will they matter?

As with numerous other political decisions of the present regime, the local bodies’ polls (Local Government Elections) have ended up in a quagmire and once again judicial activism has jumped into the fray exposing the utter indecisiveness and failure of the political elite to resolve anything at all.

Over the last few years the nation has witnessed the judiciary’s unprecedented interference in almost every sphere of the state and society. For a weak ruling class that has come late onto the stage of history already burdened with increasing economic, social and political crises, even the most basic and obvious decisions have become complicated and debilitating. The truth is the ruling elite is at ease in allowing judicial activism to take over day to day executive decisions in the certainty that they will be delayed until posterity and eventually will fade out of the memory of the masses and exit from the immediate agenda of the media.

It is not an accident that most of the local bodies’ elections in this country’s history were held under the military. This is in reality a harking back to the nineteenth century colonial ideas of political tutelage in which  the elite civil service forms the backbone of a system of governance which privileges administration over participation. From Ayub’s system of ‘basic democracy’ to other ingenious innovations of local governments by different military generals, local elections were for one particular purpose only. That was to bargain for some social base and legitimacy for their despotic rule at the grass roots level by rewarding a compliant political class. But sooner rather than later these local governments fail to satisfy the needs of the masses and to stem the growing resentment and threat of the masses and this invariably leads to the induction of tried and tested loyal politicians and technocrats into government to maintain the fallacious shroud of a democratic set up.

The main reason behind the ruler’s indecision is that the funds allocated for ‘public spending’ are so meagre that the political structures themselves cannot cover the costs and the commissions under this system of contractures and subletting. In almost every area of the state’s activity and developmental projects, there is an army of multi tiers of contractors going for these contracts in order to extract huge profits. With the aggravating financial shortages and the exasperating lust for money they can only behave like vultures and in the process have ended up becoming billionaires - and the end product for the masses is hardly worth mentioning. This also explains the fact that the decaying and distraught social and physical infrastructure and the extremely poor access of the masses to the basic provision of collective social life such as sanitation, water supply, streets and pavements, roads, electricity supply, health facilities, schools and others is caused by this leakage in the channels of the funds allocated for these projects.

The other main reason is that the original budget spending on these provisions at the national and the provincial levels is already paltry but with the passage of time the first victim of financial cuts and the diversion of funds to other more ‘important’ sectors is the developmental spending which is more than often sought from the imperialist financial institutions like the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank or other Western and Chinese government funding.

This assistance comes with a heavy price in the form of exorbitant interest rates and other harsh and stringent conditions. The state bureaucracy at all levels and at different rates extracts its booty from these funds in allocating contracts to the bidders who pay the highest bribes. The relationship between these officials and the contractors is one of the largest sources of corruption in the economy and society. From the top echelons of the ruling elite to the lowest rungs of the system there is an on going haemorrhaging of the funds that are supposed to alleviate poverty and provide for the basic collective needs of the people.

With a democracy based on moneyed parliamentarianism the members of the national and the provincial assemblies take charge of these projects and activities. One should not be surprised at this development. After all we have an electoral system where one could only rise by investing heavily and do so in the belief that this is a business and furthermore do so with a surety of rich and fast dividends. This leaves very little room for any transformative development in the social life of the urban and the rural areas. The reliance on the administration as opposed to participation is a need of the day in order to reward their parliamentarian scavengers for whom this is nothing but a lucrative business.

In a system which is starved of funds for developmental projects to create another tier of scavengers won’t bring any prosperity. These local elections would again be contested on similar monetary conditions as those of the parliamentary elections albeit at a lower level, both financially and politically. However, the psychology and the aims of these grass root representatives would not be any different. Their vested interests are intertwined with their sponsors.

In a system of aggravating economic and financial crises the political structures, however democratic and transparent, cannot do much to end or improve the plight of ordinary people. What most right wing reformers are giving priority and importance to is the changes in the administrative structure. This is again concentrating on the form while ignoring the content of the problems and the immediate issues being borne by the vast majority of the populace. But the problem with these politicians and intellectuals is that they have no alternative economic system to improvise and to carry out substantial development within society. This philosophy is in fact giving a political form to a social content.

The major economic resources of the country are usurped by the loot and plunder of the political and the military elite and the interest and debt servicing charges of the imperialist institutions and financial capital. Pakistan is one of the poorest countries in the world while its ruling class is one of the richest. There are a few dozen people at the top who have more assets than the total GDP of the country. In fact they can buy Pakistan several times over. No ruling class in history has given up its wealth, power and privileges voluntarily. So the whole question of grass roots participation and the local bodies’ effectiveness is intrinsically linked to the economic model on which these structures of governance are based.

The oppressed masses can only play a social, political and economic role when they break their shackles and free themselves from this capitalist slavery. Only then they can form the collective councils (panchayats) or whatever they may be called. This is only possible in an egalitarian society when wealth, the economy and resources are held in common ownership and control. In the present glaring economic disparity there can never be political or social equality.