Election Diary – 5: Dissecting the high-sounding, catch-all party programmes
Election campaign and the disposition of political parties can be judged at two levels: the election manifesto and the statements of the top party leaders, and the issues and questions that get highlighted in the constituency-based electioneering. It is important to examine how do candidates project them to the voters and what kind of demands the voters make on them. The issues at the two levels, the leadership and the constituency, are not necessarily identical which often cause problems for the parties in the post-election period, especially for the party that assumes power.
The party manifestos are high-sounding, catch-all documents that attempt to sell the dreams of a better future. The impression that the manifestos create is that the political parties have workable solutions of the problems of the state and society.
The manifestos are important because they reflect the top leadership’s perspectives on national and global issues and their preferred political, economic and administrative direction for the political system. The manifestos for the May 2013 elections are strong on promises and visions of the future but weak on giving the plans of action to realize the goals. There is a noticeable absence of understanding of the ground realities of Pakistani politics, economy and society. There is no recognition of the declining capacity of the Pakistani state to perform its basic function. Its effectiveness and implementation capability has declined.
Therefore, the notion of increase the tax-to-GDP ratio from 9 to 15 percent, as claimed by the PMLN, appears unrealistic in view of the undocumented nature of Pakistani economy, increased political power of the business and trader community, especially their capacity to shut down markets and block main roads in the urban centres. Further, the PML-N depends heavily in the political domain in the Punjab on the business and trading community it says it wants to tax.
There is hardly any clear-cut ideological divide among the political parties when one examines the socio-economic agendas of major political parties. In fact, ideology is missing from the electoral context. Islamic political parties, especially the JUI-F, are focusing on worldly socio-economic agendas similar to other parties. However, Islamic parties often raise the issue of implementation of the Sharia and making Pakistan into a genuine Islamic state without giving the details of institutions and processes they want to establish in order to realize their version of Islamic state. Some of them raise the slogan of ‘Islam is in danger’ and that they would not allow secular system in Pakistan.
Ideology surfaces in the election campaign when we look at the violence employed by the Pakistani Taliban and their affiliates in the course of the election campaign. The Taliban are targeting liberal-left and democratic parties, i.e. the PPP, the ANP and the MQM. Their election meetings, party offices and leaders are being targeted by bombings and suicide attacks. Islamic parties and others on the right like the PML-N and the PTI that are known for sympathetic attitude towards the Taliban are relatively free to engage in electioneering, although these parties adopt security measures for their election meetings.
On shortages of electricity, the PML-N leader, Shahbaz Sharif, promises to overcome this problem in two years and the PTI would need three years to address this problem altogether. The PPP blames the PML-N for sabotaging its efforts for power generation in the past. However, no party provides the plan of action for generating more power or saving wastage and line losses. Above all, how would they mobilize resources? How would the PTI and the PML-N get Western, especially the US, assistance when they want to completely revise the current U.S-Pakistan relations? The PTI wants to end ‘American slavery’ and withdraw from ‘American-sponsored’ war on terrorism.
With the exception of the PPP, the MQM and the ANP, the political parties have a vague stance on terrorism in Pakistan. All parties condemn terrorism but none other than the above named three parties are willing to criticize any group involved in terrorism even when a group takes the responsibility of the terrorist attack. The Jamaat-i-Islami and Islamic parties subscribing to Wahabbi/Deobandi and Ahle-Hadith (Hadees) Islamic traditions either support or strongly sympathize with the Taliban. The groups and parties associated with the Barelvi and Shia Islamic traditions are publicly critical of the Taliban and sectarian groups.
The PTI treats terrorism as an internal security issue and wants to abolish militant wings of political parties but its silence over the militant Islamic groups using violence is rather surprising. In fact, the PTI’s perspective on war on terrorism and security operations in the tribal areas overlaps with the Pakistani Taliban point-of-view.
The PML-N maintains ambiguity on the violent activities of the Taliban and other militant groups, although it condemns terrorism in principle. Both, the PMLN and the PTI are talking of changes in government policies on terrorism and the long term socio-economic development of the tribal areas. These parties are not addressing the immediate threat of terrorism by the Taliban and other militant-sectarian groups. Given the strong presence of conservative and hard line Islamic groups and sectarian organizations in the Punjab, the PMLN and the PTI are courting them for votes.
The PMLN has offered a detailed set of guidelines for salvaging Pakistani economy. It also talks of revamping and privatization of the state enterprises that are suffering perpetual losses. How practical is the suggestion of privatization when the labour unions oppose it? The PML-N will not get any support from the PPP or the PTI for this purpose. All political parties do not talk of land reforms with fixed maximum land ceiling.
The manifestos of the major political parties want to pursue friendly interaction with the international community, especially the neighboring countries. There is no manifestation of hostility towards India. In the public meetings and statements of the political leaders there is hardly any reference to India and Kashmir. Even Islamic parties are not talking about Kashmir, although they may refer to Kashmir and water issue in formal statements. India and Kashmir do not appear to be on the political radar of the political parties. The attempts to play up anti-American sentiments by the PTI and Islamic parties have not got much response. The focus is on domestic issues.
When we compare the leadership discourse and manifestos with election campaigning in constituencies these appear to be two worlds far apart. No high policy matter is being taken up there. Only local, constituency related issues are discussed. We will discuss this aspect of election campaign in some later article.
The writer is an independent political and defence analyst.