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Friday Apr 06 2018

The missing manifestos

This year, Pakistan will hold its 11th general election. A little over two months to go before the incumbent national and provincial assemblies complete their term and a date for the poll is announced. Yet, not a single political party has unveiled an election manifesto – a written declaration based on which a party asks a citizen to vote for it.

Party manifestos are central to a competitive electoral process, as well as the larger civic engagement process. In a democracy, only political parties are the key institutions that can understand, contribute towards and lead policy and implementation reforms, to address challenges for sustainable democratic governance.

Understandably, and true to South Asian political traditions, manifestos employ political rhetoric as well as sloganeering to attract voters. In Pakistan, not only is there an inordinate delay by parties to make public their pre-election manifestos, but, in the past, even when manifestos were rolled out they have often failed to make concrete, cogent and clear policy proposals that can be the yardstick against which they themselves, as well as citizens, can monitor their performance post-election.

Part of the reason for this inability is that parties in Pakistan lack an effective internal mechanism for deliberation and analysis of party policies.

In developed democracies, the process of drafting and unveiling party policies remains a constant process and unlike Pakistan, is not reserved only for the pre-election period. Parties, as live and active institutions, have permanent structures in place that continue to propose, debate and refine policy proposals before these are officially adopted by the parties. Most, if not all political parties in countries such as the UK, USA, New Zealand and elsewhere have policy forums, formed with the purpose of engaging with party members at the grassroots level to seek their input. These forums develop and advance party policies and ideas through creating opportunities for members, to participate in the policy-making and policy support processes.

If Pakistan’s political parties wish to remain focused on the job of improving democratic governance in the country, they must strive to aggregate public opinion to resolve issues faced by the society, and in turn offer competing visions of public policies, whether they are in the government or not. Parties can not wake up to manifesto creation a few months before an electoral exercise. This has to be a constant internal process. Political parties need to create permanent internal think tanks that can continually engage with party membership, as well as track implementation of party manifestos between elections.

One of the key practices of developing party manifestos is to include costing and financing of each manifesto pledge made by each political party. In other words, a manifesto pledge must be accompanied by the answers to the questions: What will it cost to implement the pledge? Where will the money come from? Pakistan’s political parties need to include costing proposals, if, for instance, they pledge to reduce or increase defence or education budgets. Pledges, without sound costing, equate to mere promises or wishes.

As an independent political think tank, the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency (PILDAT) has continued to analyse election manifestos of major political parties ahead of the 2002, 2008 and 2013 general elections. Let’s take a look at the 2013 manifestoes of three major parties – Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, Pakistan People’s Party and the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf - on the sticking issue of democratic civil-military relations and the democratic oversight of defence and national security.

The PML-N manifesto reveals that some clear thinking existed in Nawaz Sharif’s party on these issue in 2013. But the other two largely relied on rhetoric when it came to these subjects.

In the PML-N 2013 manifesto, even though no specific section existed on the subject of democratic oversight of defence and national security, there was greater articulation of its policies and pledges on the subject. Compare its 2008 manifesto, where the PML-N repeated its stance on instituting democratic control on defence and national security through setting up a decision-making body under the cabinet, i.e., the Cabinet Committee on Defence and National Security. Then, in its 2013 manifesto, the party took a step further and pledged to resource the body with support from think tanks - a much-needed reform in this regard. After the 2013 election, the PML-N government followed through on its manifesto pledge and formed a structured National Security Committee (NSC), while creating a new National Security Division to work as its Secretariat.

On the subject of democratic oversight of defence and national security, the PPP mostly devoted its 2013 manifesto to showcase what it considered its accomplishments from 2008-2013. To the PPP’s credit, it was for the first time in Pakistan’s history, since after 1965, that details of the defence budget were presented in the parliament and it was during their tenure. In comparison with its 2008 manifesto, the specific defence-related pledges made in the Charter of Democracy were not included by the PPP in its 2013 manifesto.

Now for the election manifesto of the PTI in 2013. This one was certainly an improvement from its 2002 manifesto, in terms of some outline of a policy on defence oversight and civil-military relations. The party pledged that the defence spending would be rationalized, though it did not provide any estimates on how that will be done. The party also pledged that the defence budget would be debated in the parliament with in-camera sessions.

But those were promises of the past. What of 2018? With national election just around the corner, where are the manifestos?

Riaz is the joint director at the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency (PILDAT). She tweets @AasiyaRiaz

Note: The views expressed in the article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Geo News or the Jang Group.

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