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Manifestos for 2018

March 12, 2018


IN most functioning democracies, voter preferences feed into political parties and help inform their policy positions. In wealthy countries, such manifesto issues could be as minute as a debate on raising or lowering tax rates by a per cent or two; or marginal spending decisions on particular aspects of social policy. In nascent democracies, the policy positions are usually much broader and more polemical.

For a low-income country like Pakistan, the role of political parties and their manifestos becomes even more important because of the nature of state-citizen interaction, and the general constraints of the electorate. Existing research on voting behaviour in Pakistan shows that the decision at the ballot box is shaped by a number of factors. The conventional caricature of all voters as irrational consent-givers has been debunked several times over. There is no doubt that voters, especially in rural areas, do engage in block voting, and blocks may be defined along patron-client, kinship, tribal or linguistic lines. However, block decisions are often highly rational (in a narrow sense), and predicated on the logic of exchange. ‘X provides Y with Z in exchange for Y’s vote’ is how politics works in many parts of the world, and to expect it to be any different in Pakistan is silly.

That said, in the often well-meaning quest to rationalise Pakistan’s democracy, or to sanctify the fundamental act of voting, observers often conflate locally rational decisions with what could be rational or correct decisions at higher levels of abstraction. Simply put, it is not a given that everyone voting according to the rational need of their particular block will produce an outcome beneficial to all blocks or even all voters within the same block. This remains one of the biggest constraints in any patronage democracy, and one that has not been adequately confronted with any nuance in Pakistan. The response has mostly been to go the other way, ie voters are too irrational hence we should do away with democracy for the time being.

Tackling this constraint requires expanding our understanding and requirement of parties to be more than just vote-getters and vote-pleasers, towards preference articulators as well. In other words, parties should be setting the agenda in concrete ways, well beyond the narrow issue of sarak naali or imprecise claims about accountability.

Ahead of the general election, there are major big-ticket issues that require immediate and precise articulation by Pakistan’s political parties.

Ahead of the 2018 election, there are major big-ticket issues that require immediate and precise articulation by Pakistan’s political parties, simply because they are too important to ignore. In the paragraphs that follow, I list some of these issues with the hope that they become part of a broader conversation around the sort of party manifestos required over the next five months.

While some countries deal with the question of how best to achieve growth or how to make it more equitable, we’re currently grappling with a much more fundamental question: how do we regulate the lives (and in some cases the right to live) of citizens within the country. The trigger for this question is the recent Islamabad High Court pronouncement on the fate of the Ahmadi community, and the concern exhibited by a member of the higher judiciary over the ‘deception’ posed by their ‘names, faces and dresses’. While less said about this is probably better, our mainstream parties have to make a fundamental choice — while each national leader pays lip service to the rights of minorities, no one is willing to create a political stake for these rights through their actual politics as well.

The need for the next five years is for in-house thinking and then a clear road map of how these rights will be protected, the reforms required to make this possible, and a national consensus on its importance. This may not be a vote-getting issue (is likely the exact opposite), but this is exactly why the articulatory function of parties is so important.

The second major issue is on improving the quality of state-citizen engagement through civil service reform. The PTI has taken at the very least a rhetorical lead on this by stating that it seeks to depoliticise the bureaucracy. This is an encouraging start, though it requires much more elaboration. Does making the bureaucracy autonomous improve its interface with the citizenry? What sorts of reforms are required to make it more responsive, and more competent? A well thought-out position of each party on this issue would at least open up a conversation on a domain that will require several terms to fix.

Following from this, the third issue that needs to be addressed by parties seeking power nationally is the legitimate claims of the Pakhtun population, and how the current state-citizen contract is contributing to their grievances. The Pakhtun long march was a unique and fundamentally democratic moment that highlighted en masse what was previously said ephemerally. A decade of terrorism and state action has exacted a heavy toll, and the conversation on reconstruction has too often focused on roads and bridges and not enough on dignity, security and other fundamental rights in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Fata, Balochistan and elsewhere. Therefore, party manifestos need to address this issue through more than just a token nod or a tangential sentence. They need to consider the exact policy steps required for redressing grievances, which in turn can only be formulated once party leaders engage with the population and its new leadership.

These three big-ticket issues — minority security, state-citizen interface, and ethnic grievances — are issues of constitutional importance. These are issues that states resolve once in a generation (sometimes even more) at major moments of political and social flux. It is unfortunate that, despite varied attempts in the past, they remain unresolved in Pakistan. A third election of uncertain makings, during an imperfect phase of democratisation, doesn’t seem like a moment for monumental change. But it remains important for parties to treat it as such.

The writer is a freelance columnist.

Twitter: @umairjav

Published in Dawn, March 12th, 2018