Pakistan Institute of Development Economics

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Political Party Manifestos: Reform Paradox in Pakistan

Publication Year : 2024
Author: PIDE

A precise manifesto serves as a yardstick to measure performance of political parties against pledges. However, the culture of meaningful debates remains elusive in Pakistan’s politics. Manifestos presented by the political parties in 2024 General elections reflect a wish-list having tall claims but no strategy of resource mobilization, and making the economy self-driven without the IMF borrowing.

Importance of Manifesto

A political party’s manifesto is a manuscript that chalks out a party’s vision, goals, and plans—aligning the aspirations and needs of the public. Commonly, it signifies the policy package a political party uses to attract voters at election time. It also helps form a coalition government process, as political parties are more likely to form a coalition if the policies expressed in their manifestos are similar [1].

The manifesto usually frames the broader policy proposals to address various societal issues. Political parties mostly release it right before the election as a symbol of democratic value. It serves the voters to make informed choices about whom to vote for or not, based on political parties’ ideologies, agendas, and commitments. The political parties commonly make debates, sell their narrative, and engage the public in the electoral process through their intended policy proposals. It helps the voters to make political parties accountable for their promises and proposals.

In the grand auditorium of democracy, a manifesto is the opening act that captivates minds, and fuels discussions. A distinctive manifesto broadly covers the following components [2]:

  • An overarching vision of a political party to address core country issues.
  • Policy proposals to discourse various issues, i.e., economy, domestic and foreign policy, society, social infrastructure, etc.
  • Promises and commitments made by a political party to win public trust, i.e., job creation, salary rise, tax cut, health, education, etc.
  • Competing agenda of political parties to showcase their ideology by differentiating them from other political parties.
  • Guide voters closest to their ideal policy package and enrich them that how political parties visualise the real world.

A well thought out manifesto significantly impacts the election campaign by influencing the public, particularly the open and swing voters. Along with serving as a yardstick by the electorate and the political parties to measure political parties’ performances against the pledges. The political parties in deep-rooted democratic societies  regularly inscribe their policy priorities and plans. However, in countries like Pakistan devoid of such practices, voters are unclear about what manifestos actually are. In the absence of which, most political parties adopt the approach of pleasing the electorate by often making  vague commitments and unrealistic promises. Despite knowing that their promises are not practically implementable.

A well-precise manifesto significantly impacts the election campaign by influencing the public, incredibly the open and swing voters. It also serves as a yardstick for a ruling party to measure its performance against pledges. The political parties in deep-rooted democratic societies  regularly inscribe their policy priorities and plans. However, in countries like Pakistan, it is unclear to a voter what manifestos actually are. Here, most political parties adopt the approach that the audience is considered willing to buy. Keeping in view, political parties often make vague commitments and unrealistic promises just for the sake of populism despite knowing that their promises are not practically implementable. The coalition government could be another factor where ruling parties compromise their ideologies.

Box 1: Manifesto/Jalsas/Debates- The Missing Link

Pakistan still lacks a systematic approach towards the validation of claims and promises made by political parties during election campaigns.

The only approach in Pakistan’s political setup is holding of rallies and Jalsa’s, by gathering enthusiastic supporters (often paid for) to showcase of strength and power. The whole show revolves around the charismatic leaders making grand promises, and attendees (often bought crowd) cheering in response.

The culture of meaningful debates remains elusive and the conversation revolves around character assassinations of opponents and political vilification, grand promises, etc. Politicians even lack training for meaningful debates and exchange of ideas.

Debates clarify vision, policy, and ideology of the party along with rationalizing the grand promises through cross-questions. However, politicians avoid cross-talks and prefer in holding jalsas.  

The economic cost of holding Jalsa’s is very high—above 440 billion rupees in 2018 election. Instead debates cost less and would be more informative.

Manifesto Politics in Pakistan

Historically, Pakistani politicians have used symbols and slogans to gain power and influence. They usually claim they have a  well-clear plan, but after electing, they fail to materialize it by providing a concrete roadmap. There are multiple reasons, including incompetency and a dictator mindset in political leadership.   

In the history of Pakistan, voters were given the right to select the members of the National Assembly on December 7, 1970. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto came with the slogan of significant improvement for the “underprivileged” and Shaikh Mujeeb with the symbol of Bengali grievances [3]. Bhutto promised that the government would not work for a small elite. However, once the party gained power, they behaved differently by grabbing more power for the Prime Minister than was provided in the constitution. Despite federalism commitment, the government of two provinces was dismissed [4]. History shows that Islamic Socialism, Roti, Kapra or Makan, and Nizam-i-Mustafa were the most pleasing slogans in the 1970 and 1977 elections.

Political parties were essentially latent during Zia-ul-Haq’s rule (1977-88). He promoted religious parties to counter PPP’s socialist narrative and to fulfill Afghan Jihad agenda. In the politically unstable 1990s, the PPP and PML(N) dominated the political landscape, alternating as the governing parties. Both parties got government in twice, and they overrode the political stability by imposing allegations against each other, i.e., corruption, power misuse, etc. The civil and military establishment, and the judiciary were also part of this intrigue. The public lost faith on the democratic process as the country faced five elections in just twelve years.

Over time, all the political parties apprehend particular economic challenges, i.e., sluggish economic growth, unsustainable fiscal challenges, rising debt, etc. Considering global economic dynamics, many of them also changed their ideology over time. For example, the PPP adopted a different approach in the latter compared to its 1970s politics by recognizing the role of the private sector and deregulation.

Over the last three decades, almost every political party in its manifesto listed the economic challenges with its reform wish-list, i.e., raising the tax-GDP ratio and resolving energy crises. They also made convincing commitments improving governance, i.e., sovereignty of Parliament, provincial autonomy, and the local government system and addressing social issues, including health and education. However, after gaining power, they largely failed to provide a roadmap.

The most significant gap in manifestos’ precise role is its implementation. A few common challenges of the political parties are as follows:

  • Mostly, the political parties avoid publically inter-party cross-debates on thoughtful societal issues. They merely use popular slogans to attract the voters to address the local issues (i.e., street soling, electrification, etc.) rather than building a narrative on national and international policy issues. The commitments made by most of the MNA/MPA electives relate to the local government rather than legislation in nature.
  • Despite commitment in their manifestos, political parties largely avoid authorizing Parliament and democracy even within the party by managing intra-party elections. The dynastic politics gain momentum over time.
  • All the political parties show unity on one agenda: abandoning the local government tier. Due to the political parties’ stubbornness, the local government tier is non-functional in the country. Simply the don’t want to devolve their power and financial resources.
  • Despite mounting commitments, every ruling party has historically followed the ‘Brick and Mortar’ and ‘Haq-HAG’ model by spending PSDP to build physical infrastructure with poor intention to uplift social and soft infrastructure.
  • Modern policy suggests that growth happens because of the ‘software’ of society, such as productivity, management, policy, innovation, and institutions [5]. However, political leaders show reluctance to broaden the tax base, reduce government size, and implement civil service reforms. Resultantly, exports shrank, and productivity declined.
  • Every government seeks foreign projects and loans to finance budget and building infrastructure projects. Foreign and domestic loans have become an integral part of government financing with no strategy to repay the loans. The debt servicing is rising day-by-day, and the public is bearing its cost with more taxes
  • Donors/lenders are at the main seat of the drive to run economic agenda of the country. The country has faced trillions of losses due to donor-driven Independent Power Producers (IPPs) contracts in the energy sector. The social safety net is another area where unsustainable donor-led expansion is up day-by-day.
  • After winning the election, none of the political parties is attentive to long-term policy formulation. Ruling parties’ MNAs and ministers are interested in short-term projects of 3-4 years by giving jobs and building roads in their constituencies. More than 70% of the federal and provincial ministries even lack a policy document just to show it on the shelf.

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