As it was being reported that the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government wanted to revisit the 18th Constitutional Amendment, Prime Minister Imran Khan has unequivocally declared that there are many problems with the law and it needs to be rectified. However, there is more to this than meets the eye.
Recently visiting Karachi after several months, PM Khan while talking to journalists said: “Devolution is always effective for a good governance system. I have no objection to the 18th Amendment nor am I against it. But they have included several things in that reform in haste. They definitely needed to be reviewed and fixed.”
PM Khan while expounding his view noted, “In the devolution system, powers are transferred from provinces to local administration. But here we see that our local bodies don’t enjoy any power. All powers are enjoyed by the chief minister and he has become a kind of dictator. He’s not offering powers to the local administration. Effective devolution functioning requires a three-tier system but here it’s stuck in two tiers.”
It may be mentioned that the 18th Constitutional Amendment was made with a near consensus by all political parties of the country in April 2010. Under the amendment, the Concurrent Legislative List of the Constitution, upon which both federal and provincial governments could legislate and develop administrative infrastructure, was abolished and the departments contained in the list were devolved to the provinces. It was the longstanding desire of the provinces, specifically of their so-called ethno-linguistic groups, to abolish the Concurrent Legislative List of the Constitution of 1973, as promised by the framers, after 10 years of the promulgation of the Constitution. Therefore, when the amendment was made, it was highly appreciated by ethno-linguistic groups of Pakistan. In fact, the 18th Constitutional Amendment is referred to be the single most significant achievement of the ethno-linguistic groups in the history of the country. The credit was also given to the then President of Pakistan and Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) Co-chairman Asif Ali Zardari for making it possible.
PM Khan has made it clear that he did not aim at totally abandoning the 18th Constitutional Amendment but only rectifying anomalies in it. While shunning the amendment may be problematic, the PM’s observations about its anomalies hold a lot of water. As the PM pointed out that the provinces have been reluctant to install local government systems and secondly, if they are compelled to install them, they are not willing at all to provide them with financial and administrative powers. If the local government system, whose existence is also a constitutional provision, is not in place or is dysfunctional due to lack of financial and administrative powers, basic needs and services to the citizens could never be ensured. Secondly, the local government system and bodies serve as nurseries of democracy and leadership. So, without them one cannot have democratic culture in the country out of which many leaders may emerge. The crisis of democracy and that of governance in Pakistan has partly been due to the continual non-existence of local government structures in the provinces. Due to it, even basic and municipal services are to be provided by provincial government ministers or departments, which are not at all meant for it. The result has been total administrative crisis and chaos.
The provinces have not been willing to install local government bodies for two main reasons. Firstly, the government by a particular political party in a province does not want to share administrative and financial powers with members of other parties which may form district or local governments. Even if district, tehsil or union council governing bodies are from the same party, having its government at the provincial level, the provincial leadership does not want to share powers and perks with its party people on the local level. It fundamentally has been due to the absence of democratic attitudes and mindset in the country. Being in government is considered a privilege by many and a source of economic and financial self-aggrandizement. So, PM Khan is right in noting that the provinces have not been willing to devolve powers to districts and other lower tiers of the government and, therefore, the 18th Constitutional Amendment has problems.
The fact of the matter is that the spirit of the 18th Constitutional Amendment was the devolution of powers, resources and finances from the federal government to the provinces. However, the spirit cannot be realized if powers are not devolved to the grassroots level where most of the people live and could participate in decision-making and allocation of resources.
Insofar as the importance of the 18th Constitutional Amendment is concerned, beyond any doubt it was historic and the provinces rightly got their due financial and administrative powers under the federation. Although ethno-linguistic groups may have been celebrating the passage of the amendment as their biggest ever victory, yet the real victory was of the state of Pakistan. Because the non-provision of political, constitutional, economic and cultural rights of the provinces, mostly representing ethno-linguistic groups, have always been exploited by the same ethno-linguistic groups to launch a tirade against the state and federation.
The 18th Constitutional Amendment may be of great value and PM Khan’s intention to rectify some of its anomalies may also be equally good. However, the basic question is whether PM Khan’s party, the PTI, has the requisite parliamentary strength to revisit the 18th Constitutional Amendment and make rectifications to it? It is not at all the case as the PTI just has a bare majority in the National Assembly and is far from it in the Senate of Pakistan. Then why PM Khan is debating the issue? He may be talking like a statesman, who just wants to point out the problems of the governing system. However, by starting a debate on the 18th Constitutional Amendment he may have been disclosing the problems the federal government is facing in ruling the country, which obviously he should, to take the people into confidence. It is important for the country and people more than the political future of the country. While the PTI may not touch the 18th Constitutional Amendment for lack of requisite parliamentary strength but if it remains so, the political system’s survival would be at stake. In fact, the parliamentary political system has so many problems, some so incorrigible that the country cannot be run smoothly as the collapse of many state institutions is already obvious. It could be clearly observed in day-to-day remarks of our Supreme Court while hearing cases involving state entities and bodies. One reckons the country is moving towards a complete overhaul of the political system as is evident from the statements of PM Khan, the most important outcome of the extant system.