Opposition parties threaten protests if the PPP-led government does not amend local government laws in line with Article 140A of Constitution
The Supreme Court of Pakistan, earlier this month, directed the Sindh government to devolve financial, administrative, and political powers to local governments, as enshrined in Article 140A of the Constitution. But lacking any timeframe for implementation of the verdict, the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP)-led provincial government does not appear to be in any rush and maintains lawmaking is the right of the ruling party.
Under Article 140A, each province shall “establish a local government system and devolve political, administrative and financial responsibility and authority” to its elected representatives. While the Sindh government has pledged to implement the verdict in letter and spirit, it maintains that the ruling seeks appropriate legislation and does not offer any interpretation of Article 140A. There are certain “grey areas” concerning the devolution of power in the apex court’s judgment, Karachi administrator and PPP spokesman Murtaza Wahab told Newsweek.
Referring to the opposition’s threats to protest any moves to reduce the powers of local bodies, he said that every party had a right to protest. “However, legislation is the prerogative of the provincial government and any party exercising majority would have the final say,” he added.
Supreme Court ruling
Announcing its verdict—reserved since Oct. 26, 2020—on a petition filed by the Muttahida Qaumi Movement-Pakistan (MQM-P) against the Sindh Local Government Act, 2013, the Supreme Court noted that a provincial government could not launch any projects that fall under the purview of local governments. It also declared void sections 74 and 75 of the legislation, which are related to the transfer of functions from councils to government and commercial schemes.
“We had fought with the establishment, governments and our political opponents in the past but it [verdict] was the acknowledgement of our stated position on the democratic and third tier of the government by the state institution,” MQM-P leader Farooq Sattar told Newsweek. However, he agreed with Wahab in that certain clauses of the judgment were “vague,” adding that he feared the PPP government would try to take advantage of this. “The SC did not declare the whole Sindh Local Government Act 2013 completely redundant,” he noted.
Following the apex court’s verdict, the Sindh government has formed an 11-member special committee with representation of all political parties to recommend amendments that empower the local bodies system and devolves resources to the grassroots level. It hopes that this would forestall any future protests by opposition parties, which had agitated against the legislation since August 2021, when it was passed into law. However, the opposition parties appear undeterred, and have vowed to return to the streets if they do not see any progress in line with the Supreme Court’s directives “within a few days.”
“We won’t let the PPP take advantage of any grey areas, if there are any. We will make sure that the provincial government removes the Karachi administrator and holds local body polls within 90 days in line with Article 140A of the Constitution,” Khurram Sher Zaman, a PTI leader from Sindh, told Newsweek. His comments were echoed by other opposition parties in Sindh, including the MQM-P, the Pak Sarzameen Party (PSP), and the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI).
MQM-P’s Sattar said that while recent sit-ins and protests by various parties had placed pressure on the Sindh government, they had gained little to show for their efforts. Referring to the much-publicized “agreements” signed between the PPP-led government and the JI and PSP to end protests against the local government law, he claimed the MQM had inked similar pacts with the PPP in the past. “None of them were reasonably implemented and the same will be the fate of the pacts with the JI and the PSP,” he claimed. “The PPP has a history of defiance and backing out of its agreements,” he added.
One of those agreements was inked between the JI and the PPP after a 29-day-long sit-in outside the Sindh Assembly, under which all departments of the education and health sectors, including hospitals and dispensaries, would remain with the Karachi Municipal Corporation, while the Karachi mayor would serve as chairperson of the Water and Sewerage Board and the Solid Waste Management Board.
JI leader Hafiz Naeem described the apex court’s judgement as “unfortunate” in a conversation with Newsweek, stressing it fell short of requiring the Sindh government to hold local body polls within a set timeframe. “The court has given a clean chit to the provincial government. It could have ordered the Sindh government to make a constitutional chapter in 15 days and could have bound it to devolve all institutions within a month and submit a report, just like it did in the Nasla Tower case,” he said, referring to the court-ordered demolition of an illegally constructed residential building.
Similar concerns were expressed by the PSP leader Mustafa Kamal, who claimed the verdict was unlikely to yield any fruits in the short-term. “The SC could have given this order two months back and made it mandatory for the government to implement just like it did in the Nasla Tower case,” he said.
Even though the opposition fears a delay in implementation of the verdict, Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency (PILDAT) Executive Director Ahmed Bilal Mehboob maintains there are legal avenues to ensure it. He told Newsweek that if the Sindh government failed to implement the order within two months, the court could be moved to review the progress or even take suo moto notice requiring elections by a specified date. “We witnessed this in 2013 and 2018 that the Supreme Court had to intervene and instruct. Besides, it would be foolish on the part of the Sindh government not to incorporate Article 140A in the local government legislation,” he added.
Progress or protests
Both the JI and PSP, meanwhile, remain wary of any “delaying” tactics of the provincial government. “We have warned the PPP government of consequences if it backtracks on the agreement it reached with the JI,” said JI’s Naeem. “The government can enact legislation on devolution of education, health and the Provincial Finance Commission Award right now,” he said. “If they do not legislate in a few days, we’ll resort to street protests and agitation,” he warned.
PSP’s Kamal said the 5-page agreement his party had inked with the Sindh government covered all aspects of the devolution of power under Article 140A, adding many of “administrative and financial demands put forward by the PSP” had been accepted.
Both parties, however, have ruled out any potential alliances to build pressure on the Sindh government. Naeem alleged the MQM was “partner in crime” with the PPP, adding it had helped dismantle the local government system and stripped every union council and mayor of their powers. Kamal, meanwhile, said that while he had visited the JI sit-in to show solidarity, his gesture had not been reciprocated.
“As far as the MQM is concerned, the party being part of the federal government could have done much more in this regard but it made it an ethnic issue, despite the fact it’s an administrative issue,” he added, ruling out any alliance between the PSP and MQM-P.
But while the opposition continues to threaten protests without tangible progress, civil society representatives and activists have regretted that “greed for power” is hampering governance in the province. Pakistani architect and activist Arif Hassan said Karachi’s status as a financial hub and “unique” metropolis in the context of Pakistan was endangered by centralization of power.
“The PPP can control the wealth and assets of this city through a controlled and highly centralized system, while opposition parties can control this through a highly decentralized system of governance,” he said, referring to the commonly-held belief that PPP is less popular in Sindh capital Karachi than the rest of the province, allowing it to form the provincial government. He regretted that the Supreme Court ruling would likely prove eyewash, as judgements without any follow up were merely pieces of paper.
Similarly, PILDAT’s Mehboob lamented that a desire to retain power prevented politicians from relinquishing control over administration. “A greed for power is something which is driving the ruling class to worsen the situation,” he said and urged all stakeholders, including the judiciary and citizenry, to come out on the streets to build pressure on all provincial governments to devolve powers at the maximum level.