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Page last updated at 19:06 GMT, Tuesday, 21 July 2009 20:06 UK

The rise of Pakistan's 'civilian dictators'

By David Loyn
BBC News, Attock, Pakistan

Maj Tahir Sadik
Local government is there to solve the petty problems of the people
Maj Tahir Sadik

Retired Pakistani army Maj Tahir Sadik will leave office as the elected "nazim", or mayor, of Attock with mixed feelings in October.

"Eight years is a hell of a long time," he told me as we drove around the town.

Remembering the thousands of small issues he had dealt with, the grievances heard, the arguments settled, he added rather quietly, "they even pray for us".

He could not stand again as he has served the maximum two terms. But he is now leading a national campaign to save the nazim system, which is being allowed to fade away when the mandate of those elected across the country expires in October, with no fresh elections planned.

Scuffles

Attock marks the historic crossing point of the Indus River, where armies since Alexander the Great have come after crossing the deserts and mountains of Afghanistan with India to the east in their sights.

But history has passed the town by as nowadays a motorway bridge further north is the route to North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), giving the ancient border town a forgotten air.

Bridge in Attock
Local government has been the bedrock of infrastructure projects

Maj Tahir says that the nazim system offers voters unique access to the levers of power that they do not have when their political rulers are far away in the Punjabi power centre of Lahore, or the national capital Islamabad.

"Local government is there to solve the petty problems of the people, small problems, scuffles between people, and development issues, where a road goes, where a school should be built," he says.

In the eight years that he has been in power a public park has been built along with hospitals and sports facilities, rural bridges, eight dams and 375 school upgrades.

The system provides direct elections for village representatives, who come together with neighbouring villages to discuss issues, and vote for the district nazim, the post held in Attock by Maj Tahir. One third of the seats are reserved for women.

In a nation that has struggled to settle its constitution, veering between periods of military rule and unstable democratic control, ironically it has been military rulers who have done most for rural democracy.

The nazim system was introduced in 2001 by Gen Musharraf. Earlier attempts to introduce local voting were made in two other periods of military rule, under Ayub Khan in the late 1950s and Zia al-Haq in the 1980s.

Maj Tahir claims that since democracy was restored after the military dictatorship ended at the beginning of last year, not a single school has been upgraded in Attock as the provincial government has starved the nazims of funds ahead of suspending local government.

Taliban threat

The local government minister, retired Justice Abdul Razak Thahim, insists that local democracy is not being abolished for good.

He says that elections will be held after a period, but hinted that with elections already for the president, parliament, and assemblies for the four Pakistani provinces, that was enough democracy for now.

Polling in Pakistan
Some politicians argue that Pakistan now has enough democracy

Justice Thahim says that it would be too difficult to hold elections now while the country is facing a threat from the Taliban.

This would make voting hazardous not just in NWFP, where Pakistani forces are fighting an intense campaign for control.

"How could elections be held in the provinces, when terrorists are so busy?" he asked. "All the provinces are in the grip of terrorists and we are taking action against them."

After the terms of the nazims expire in October, local power will return to non-elected officials controlled from the centre.

It is easy to be cynical about what lies behind any political move in Pakistan, where the restoration of national democracy in 2008 has not reduced corruption.

Unprecedented

And Maj Tahir is tied by marriage to a powerful Punjabi political dynasty, the Chaudharys of Gujarat, political opponents of both of the major national ruling parties.

Map

But he says that the place to settle this is in the voting booth, not by scrapping polls.

And the fact remains that the suspension of polls will centralise power, and reduce local accountability.

It seems there will be little public agitation to preserve the system as people are more worried about the threat of terrorism and how to get through the long hot summer faced by power cuts on an unprecedented scale.

A leading political analyst, Rasul Baksh Rais, from the Lahore University of Management Sciences, says that the abolition of local voting is a backward step, and blames all political parties for failing to provide a platform for public arguments on policy.

"The centralised decision-making within the political parties will hurt the cause of democracy. People will think that instead of Pervez Musharraf who wore a military uniform, now we have civilian dictators," he said.



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