Saturday, July 30, 2022

Party manifestos: All talk no action?

Our political parties have shown tremendous resilience in the face of frequent disruptions of democracy, manipulated break-up of parties, undue blackmail and stealing of their rightful mandate,...

Flags of political parties are displayed at City Railway Colony ahead of General Election 2018. — Online
Flags of political parties are displayed at City Railway Colony ahead of General Election 2018. — Online

It is only a week or so before each general election that our political parties hurry to ‘prepare’ and issue their respective manifestos. Each of these manifestoes is mainly a wish-list of what each party plans to do if elected to power.

The wish list rarely goes into the realm of actionable policy. None of these wish lists is ever based on the financial cost of what each political promise would cost based on the size of our economy at a given time.

And how many of over 118 million voters read these manifestoes? How many decide to vote for a party considering the party believes in reducing or increasing taxes? How many vote on the basis of whether a party believes in large or small government? How many decide their vote based on parties’ pledges on increasing funding for public health or their plans for ensuring the nationwide provision of clean drinking water?

In short, how many of our large voter base, which includes a whopping 45% of youth under the age of 35, decide to vote for a party by looking at its economic policy, social policy, or policy towards eradicating extremism, or a party’s approach towards eliminating the role of the unelected in our politics, which is the biggest crisis affecting democratic governance in Pakistan? 

The very obvious answer is no one, except a few reporters who have to prepare news about these manifestoes and a handful of scholars inclined to analyse each party’s political pledges.

In addition to it generally being a last-minute exercise, manifesto preparation by political parties is also a somewhat closed and almost elitist exercise. It is not the party’s membership which provides input into what a party should plan to achieve. 

In fact, the average member at the grassroots level is practically kept out of any internal policy debate within the party, provided an internal policy debate occurs in a party in the first place. In almost every party, close to a general election, a manifesto committee of sorts is created comprising a few senior leaders who pen down the party’s political pledges mainly to fill up the manifesto.

Read more: PDM’s misadventure is hurting it now

Even if one were to base one’s voting decision on parties’ political pledges, who can differentiate between the economic policies of our key political parties? In fact, who can, even within major parties, describe whether their party believes in supporting the Taliban or entering into a negotiation with the TTP? Which party can define its policy on debt reduction or stemming the insurgency in Balochistan? Which party can state with clarity a well-worked-out policy regarding regional relations? Small wonder, then, that political parties are criticised for not being ready to provide effective governance once elected to power.

The situation does not change much with parties sitting in the opposition. Lack of clear policies affects the performance of opposition parties also. Despite well-established democratic practice, parties in the opposition do not create shadow cabinets or even appoint specific spokespersons by issue for long. 

Barring a few sporadic examples, parties in the opposition mostly believe in opposition for the sake of opposition. Even legally or economically sound initiatives of a government are criticised for the sake of criticism and political consensus is rarely seen even during critical crises facing the country.

In developed democracies, however, the system is entirely different. Manifesto preparation is not just a pre-election phenomenon. Each party’s policies are well-defined based on the preference of the party’s grassroots membership. 

Read more: The three crises

With minor differences in the exact process, policy proposals are always based on the thinking and input of each party’s local membership. Party policy formulation is not a top-down process where the party leadership decides a policy but a bottom-up process through which grassroots membership develops policy proposals outlining a party’s current thinking and future trends. 

These proposals are finalised at each party’s annual conference after a thorough debate. These finalised proposals are added to the manifestoes, which are considered live documents.

Each policy pledge is prepared based entirely on the financial cost of what it would cost the country to implement a certain policy proposed by the party. This ensures that both the public and the media know exactly how a party is going to implement a proposed policy if elected to power and where the money would come from in doing so. 

If the costing is faulty, the media pokes holes into policy proposals and thus the debate remains issue-oriented and the voter is informed of the practicality of the proposed policy options.

Former prime minister Imran Khan, who took the oath of office on August 18, 2018 at the ripe age of 66 years, said on a number of occasions a couple of years after serving as PM that no new government should ever come to power without doing some homework. 

Read more: Pakistan’s tough economic and political climate

He also publicly admitted that it took his government three months only to understand issues. This is after his party had experienced governing Khyber Pakhtunkhwa from 2013-2018, had won over 80 National Assembly seats in the 2013 General Election and key MPs belonging to the PTI served on important standing committees of parliament that deal with the working of federal ministries and divisions.

Scholars studying political evolution argue that the strengthening of political parties cannot take place in the absence of an evolved democratic system. In other words, political parties in Pakistan cannot be expected to be mature institutions in a fledgeling democratic process.

Given the regular derailment of democracy and institutional over-reach in the political process beyond its constitutional mandate, political parties always remain preoccupied with their survival. 

Our political parties have also shown tremendous resilience in the face of frequent disruptions of democracy, manipulated break-up of parties, undue blackmail, stealing of their rightful mandate and a consistent onslaught of sullying the image of politicians.

The resilience alone is not enough though. The lack of their preparedness for effective governance continues to be a major issue. Political parties must invest in sound policymaking. Internal reform is not just needed to strengthen democracies within parties but it is critical to base policymaking on the views of grassroots members. 

Parties need to create specific internal think tanks or policy planning units that keep working on developing the party’s policy options based on new and existing challenges facing Pakistan. Without sound financial costing, these policy proposals will not go beyond political promises. Parties must inform voters how they plan to achieve sound policy proposals given the budgetary constraints facing Pakistan.

Pakistan’s future should not be confined to following the dictates of the IMF and other international financial institutions. The right to govern can’t come simply from seeking citizens’ votes. This privilege must be earned by political parties through cogent policy planning for the future of Pakistan.

The writer is an analyst working in the field of politics, democratic governance, legislative development and rule of law.