The South Asia Channel

Politics, and Media, Go Local in Pakistan

Elected local governments in Pakistan have a paradoxical history: They have thrived under military regimes, but have been disbanded or replaced by unelected administrators when civilian governments are in power. Yet Pakistan's current government, under Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, is trying to break this cycle by holding party-wide local government elections during its tenure.

In December 2013, Balochistan became the first province to hold partisan polls for the local government at district and sub-district levels, despite local opposition. Independent candidates and representatives of parties that form the provincial government won most seats, raising hopes that all tiers of government will coordinate policies to address the province's law and order situation. But the process has stalled in other provinces. Wrangling over provincial local government laws and controversies surrounding the delimitation of new local constituencies has led to delays in both Sindh and Punjab provinces. And the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government has yet to set a date for local polls. Many now fear that the elections, originally scheduled for January, could be delayed by up to six months, if not postponed indefinitely.

Political expediency has driven the local government paradox: Local governments elected on a non-partisan basis enabled authoritarian regimes to connect with grassroots operators while excluding parties from the political process. Political parties, meanwhile, have been reluctant to empower local governments -- even those elected on a partisan basis -- as these were seen by members of national and provincial assemblies as a source of competition for state resources and power. The recent delays in holding local government elections in Sindh and Punjab indicate that the reluctance to devolve power persists among Pakistan's political parties.

But it would be unwise for the political elite to pass up this opportunity to establish partisan local bodies. Local government is, after all, key to entrenching democracy at all levels, not least by paving the way for political newcomers and forcing dynastic or hierarchical parties to establish internal democratic norms. Pakistan's political parties should also acknowledge the shifting mood of the people, who increasingly desire local representation and accountability.

The unprecedented appetite for local governance is reflected in -- or perhaps sparked by -- new regional-language media outlets accessible throughout the country. Media liberalization in 2002 led to the rapid growth of Pakistan's broadcast media sector, and the country currently boasts 90 privately-owned television channels and up to 200 FM radio stations. Many of these outlets broadcast in regional languages such as Sindhi, Punjabi, Saraiki, and Balochi rather than in Urdu, the national language, and aim to appeal to the ethno-linguistic communities that reside within Pakistan's different provinces. These new channels provide greater opportunities for the Pakistani media to open up a new space for grassroots demand, hold local government accountable, and foster a sense of inclusion among marginalized communities. Not surprisingly, audience research conducted for a recent BBC Media Action policy brief shows that the popularity of regional-language outlets is increasing at a significant pace.

Regional-language outlets focus on the local issues that national, Urdu-language channels cannot, including district- or provincial-level politics, news about local infrastructure or other development projects, and business news pertaining to industries or cash crops that dominate a particular region. FM radio stations, meanwhile, provide hyper-local news coverage, including traffic reports and coverage of local events, such as market fairs or the opening of a health clinic.

Participants in audience focus groups organized by BBC Media Action from locations other than Karachi consistently described regional-language media as more accessible and more representative than national outlets. As one participant from Quetta put it: "[Pashtu-language] Khyber TV is reliable because it shows footage of Balochistan, represents our area and shows our concerns."

Regional-language channels are also more trusted than Urdu-language media sources because they are perceived to hold local government officials more accountable. Focus group participants in this study consistently discussed shows on regional-language channels that question the activities of local elites, from members of the provincial assembly and district-level politicians to local police officials, such as station house officers.

The growing legitimacy of regional language channels is likely to propel growth in Pakistan's local media market, thereby further strengthening the media's ability to facilitate an inclusive national conversation. It is to Pakistan's advantage that these local media outlets are gaining in popularity at a time of political decentralization following the 2010 passage of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, which devolves power from the federal government to the provinces. Local voices are emerging just in time to be heard by local -- and provincial -- government representatives.

In striving to present the demands of their province or ethno-linguistic community to the Pakistani political federation, and in articulating a specific constituency's interests, regional-language outlets have increasingly become powerful representatives of local interests. Sindhi-language channels, for example, have been vocal opponents of the Kalabagh Dam -- a proposed hydroelectric project on the Indus River, which could potentially deprive Sindh of water resources. Similarly, Saraiki-language channels have amplified calls to create a new province comprising districts of southern Punjab where Saraiki is spoken.

Regional outlets' growing capacity to promote local interests is, of course, raising concerns that media decentralization could spur political fragmentation and social polarization, particularly inter-provincial resentments. But empowered local voices are likely to threaten fragmentation only if they are not engaged with local -- and increasingly accountable -- institutions. Pakistanis want their voices to be heard -- and the sooner local institutions are equipped to respond to public demands and grievances, the better the long-term prospects for Pakistan's democracy.

Huma Yusuf is a columnist for Pakistan's Dawn newspaper and a Global Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

For a more in-depth discussion of BBC Media Action's report, "The Media of Pakistan: Fostering Inclusion in a Fragile Democracy?," listen to the podcast of a recent New America Foundation NYC event, "Fragile States in the Information Age."