EXPLAINER The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) has suspended all local bodies till July 25th ‘to prevent any action on the part of local government institutions that amounts to influence [sic] the results of upcoming general elections’.In theory, local governments are considered essential for democracy because they instill democratic principles in governance structures and policy-making from the district-level up. Local governments allow for context-specific policy formation, train future leaders, and engage the citizenry with decision-making at the local level. Partisan local government systems strengthen party structure and membership at the district level, improve party democracy, and enhance political participation. In Pakistan, four provinces undertook the fraught process of developing their individual local government laws after the consensus on the 18th Amendment, and following persistent prodding from the Supreme Court. Shepherded by a different party in each province, these laws vary considerably in terms of local government structure, powers, and financing. It is the first partisan local government system in Pakistan’s history. By and large though, none of the provinces have managed to implement a system that has meaningfully enhanced democratic participation at the local level, or changed the centralised decision-making processes of provincial governments across the country. In fact, observers of local government systems in this country contend that, though a non-partisan system, Musharraf’s LGO 2001 devolved more significant powers to the local level than the current local government systems do.The only province that could be regarded as having had some success with its local government system is Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP). It has the only system that actually transfers development funds to the local level – the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Local Government Act states that 30 percent of the funds allocated for the Annual Development Programme would be transferred to village and neighbourhood councils. However, the KP government has struggled to implement this ambitious pledge, with funds not being transferred to local governments, and has had problems with monitoring the performance of local governments. Partisan local governments are not the problem. What is needed is partisan local governments with actual power, autonomous of the provincial governmentsIn Punjab, the local government system has been designed to centralise power in the hands of the provincial government. This is done using four provisions of the PLGA 2013. The first is the retention of the commissionerate system, empowering the bureaucracy – rather than elected representatives – at the district level. Unlike LGO 2001, under which the District Coordination Officer (DCO) was made answerable to the elected nazim, the Deputy Commissioner (DC) is answerable only to the provincial Chief Secretary. The second is the creation of authorities (Parks and Horticulture Authority, Punjab Food Authority, District Education Authorities and District Health Authorities, etc.) and companies (such as waste management, water and sanitation, etc.) to handle municipal tasks that should have been the domain of local government representatives. These companies and authorities are headed by bureaucrats, effectively concentrating power over local affairs in the hands of unelected administrators and the provincial government who appoints them and to whom they are answerable. Local government representatives, many elected on party tickets, actually have little to do under such a system. Third, reserved seats were filled through indirect election, with already elected chairpersons, vice-chairpersons, and general councilors voting for minority, women, peasant, and youth candidates. Effectively, this disenfranchised local populations, particularly minority groups. It also led to the creation of panels for the local government elections – if a certain chairperson or vice-chairperson won their election, their panel would also become local government representatives. And finally, the lack of fiscal devolution has meant that the provincial government still controls the local government funding through the Punjab Finance Commission, a body headed by an MPA and with no local government representatives as its members. Moreover, and perhaps most egregiously, the law allows the Punjab government the right to dissolve the local governments at any time.What are the ways through which elected local bodies can influence elections? In a partisan local government system, parties do of course have expectations of their local government representatives. Door-to-door campaigns, collection of donations, planning events and publicity materials are all jobs that party candidates may ask local government representatives to undertake – they are, after all, representatives of the same party. Many local representatives have held local government offices in the past or are from families that have been loyal to a party for years and consider themselves staunch party workers. Therefore, these people have their own significant following in their areas.However, local government representatives’ influence on elections goes deeper than that. Many local government officials elected in 2015 and 2016 contested on party tickets, but there were a significant number of independent candidates. The ticket distribution process was a difficult one for the parties as those who had been left out in the cold in the 2013 general election sought access to state resources and power by other means. Going against the precedent of previous (theoretically non-partisan) local government elections, in the 2015 local elections, the PML-N made the controversial decision of not awarding any tickets to family members of sitting PML-N parliamentarians. As a result many contested independently even though they remained loyal to the party. Nononetheless, tickets went to those who had the right connections to MNAs and MPAs in their districts. Recent research has shown that local representatives’ connections to more senior politicians are a key concern for voters because these connections mean that the representative will actually be able to carry out development work and bring jobs to the constituency. It was no surprise, therefore, that the incumbent parties – PMLN-N in Punjab, PPP in Sindh, and PTI in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (Balochistan is a more complex case) – swept local government elections in their respective provinces.Partisan local government representatives are, therefore, beholden to their party and to its parliamentarians in their districts. Without their help, they may face difficulty in achieving the works they had promised their constituents, particularly in Punjab where local councils are dependent on the provincial government for development funds and where bureaucrats dominate companies and authorities. Even in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the arbitrary power of the provincial government to withhold funds, despite the provisions of the law, means that local representatives are reliant on parties and politicians in their districts to help them with development schemes. Therefore, it can be difficult to separate the local government representative from the district MNA and MPA. This means that local government officials can have significant influence on general elections for the simple reason that it is in their interest to campaign for MPA and MNA candidate with whom they themselves get along well. With the next local government election coming up in 2019 or 2020, the newly elected MPAs and MNAs will be key in determining local government candidates and ticket distribution.Can denotification, in and of itself, take care of the ways in which influence may be exercised over the election?Local governments have been at a stand still for some time now since development funds are not being released for projects and schemes as per ECP rules. In such a situation, local government representatives have found themselves at a loose end with little to do other than participate in party campaigns in their district. This may involve using official vehicles for campaigning or contacting voters on behalf of general election candidates. Even with the de-notification of their offices, it will be difficult for the ECP to stop such activity. Many local government representatives are party workers of long standing, with families who have been staunch supporters of one party or the other for years. Temporarily suspending local governments will have little effect for the ECP cannot stop representatives from campaigning or making promises for the future when they are back in office. Most significantly, the links that voters perceive to be important – those between local government representatives and MPAs and MNAs – may be just as meaningful in general elections as they were found to be in local government elections.In theory then, if voters perceived their parliamentarians and local government representatives to be working well together for the benefit of the community, or at least for the benefit of their supporters, they will vote the same people back into power.Therefore, the ECP’s decision to suspend local governments till July 25th may be well-intentioned, but it is essentially meaningless. As political scientist Dr Hassan Javid pointed out in an op-ed written in 2015, the structure of local governments – where the provincial government retains power while local government representatives remain beholden to it – is such that ‘it obviates the need for overt rigging, essentially institutionalising an incentive structure that compels voters to support the incumbent or else risk being deprived of significant development funding and public service provision’.Finally, partisan local governments are not the problem. What is needed is partisan local governments with actual power, autonomous of the provincial governments. Political parties need to commit to allowing independent local governments to function and flourish. Once local representatives can perform their duties independently of the district MPAs and MNAs, and without the arbitrary (threat of) intervention by the provincial government, local governments will begin to enhance participation and strengthen democratic pathways to political power.Sameen Ali holds a PhD in Politics from SOAS University of London. She teaches at LUMS.Published in Daily Times, July 11th 2018.