What is the devolution-related outcome of party weakness along these parameters? The first is that authority in government is unilaterally exercised by central party leaders, with junior elected officials being sidelined in favour of technocratic or bureaucratic authority. This limits the representative component of decision-making, since voices ‘from the constituency’, as communicated by MPAs, are less likely to be heard in a governing structure controlled by one person and a team of appointed officials. This is highly antithetical to the spirit of devolution which seeks to expand the voice people have in government decisions.
The second is that since prominent party leaders are no more than a handful of people, there is a general concentration of authority on issues as far ranging as drafting and approving legislation, making spending decisions, and setting in place development visions. This was readily apparent in the case of Shahbaz Sharif’s time in Punjab, and early indications show that it will remain in place during the PTI’s government as well. For the latter, the appeal of Imran Khan being pushed through as the decisive factor in voting decisions has actually added another layer of centralisation, with one leader taking full charge of the party’s development vision and its implementation. As a result, we see the prime minister (and his immediate team) regularly chairing meetings of provincial ministers, handpicking members of the cabinet, and even having the final say on something as contextually specific as the nature of local government legislation.
The conjoined restraint on devolution by administrative centralisation at the level of the provincial capital, and party leaders exercising unchecked authority, are areas of persisting concern. The worrying thing is that while the former may be de jure addressed through a substantive and empowered local government law, persisting de facto authority exercised by top party leaders will likely limit any of its gains.
The writer teaches politics and sociology at Lums.
Published in Dawn, October 8th, 2018