Party manifestos

July 17, 2018


MANIFESTOS represent a political party’s plan of action if voted into office. Parties aiming for repeated wins must address root causes rather than symptoms, and target the needs of the masses rather than the elites. Thus, they must present an in-depth analysis of issues affecting the masses, and the best way to permanently address them. This analysis of challenges and solutions represents a party’s ideology.

Right-wing ideologies support the status quo and see capitalists as engines of growth. Their solutions revolve around providing capitalists with incentives to boost investment and create jobs. They argue this will also benefit the poor if they assume personal responsibility and work hard.

Left-wing ideologies see the masses as engines of growth. Their analysis focuses on the social, political and economic inequities that marginalise particular groups of people. Their solutions revolve around altering the societal balance of power to favour the masses and removing inequities so that they have fair access to economic, social and political openings.

Thus, a manifesto should first reflect the party’s views about the root causes of such problems, then list the solutions it will pursue upon attaining power. These must first cover constitutional and legislative changes, eg to alter the societal balance of power to favour weak groups. It should then present its policies, strategies and projects in different areas. Finally, since state institutions will implement policies and projects, it must address institutional reform to make them more responsive towards the masses.

We clamour for change, but vote to maintain the status quo.

Using this framework consisting of analyses and solutions (legislation, policies, projects and institutional reform), I reviewed the 2018 manifestos of PML-N, PTI, PPP and Awami Workers Party (AWP), a recently formed leftist party. Most strikingly, there is an almost complete absence of ideology from the manifestos of PML-N, PTI and PPP. None provided any analysis of why the masses suffer from deprivations due to societal inequities. The PML-N’s manifesto makes veiled references to the power imbalance between civilians and the establishment. One does find populist references to serving the poor, but no deep analysis of how poverty is produced by exploiting and marginalising certain groups, eg labourers. This means the major parties likely to be elected to run all five governments are all parties that have no interest in challenging the status quo.

There is also limited attention to constitutional amendments and other legislation to empower the masses. Institutional reform finds passing reference in all three manifestos. But the main focus of the three parties is on policies, strategies and projects in different areas. Health, education, water, energy and the like are almost all mentioned in the three parties’ manifestos with ambitious targets. But no fiscal policy ideas are given on how they will finance their other ideas. So, any voter hoping to decide among the three based on their manifestos will be left clueless.

In contrast, AWP’s manifesto provides a detailed analysis of the root causes of deprivation among the masses. While PML-N only hints at civilian-military imbalances, AWP’s manifesto provides an uninhibited account. Perhaps that is why its website is currently blocked and I had to use special software to access it. As far as providing solutions, the AWP manifesto begins with constitutional and institutional reforms to enhance the rights of weak groups. Its policies, strategies and projects focus less on grandiose schemes and more on those benefiting the poor. It also talks of a progressive fiscal policy, though without providing budgetary details. Thus, it will certainly have my vote on July 25 even though it may not win any seats.

But in a country clamouring for change, it is surprising how little resonance a party promising major change finds. One can excuse the masses, but what excuse is there for the educated middle classes? Clearly, large sections of them seem more interested in catchy slogans and sound bites rather than genuine change that may affect their privileges too.

So, there is little chance that party manifestos will sway the public mandate in this election. In fact, given pre-poll and likely post-poll rigging, it is not even clear if the final result will truly reflect the public’s mandate. Complaints about the 2013 election focused on election-day vote-stuffing and miscounting, which is easy to prove if actually done. But the current manipulations can only be proved if a whistleblower emerges, as in the Asghar Khan case. But there are strong suspicions that we seem to be going forward to the past with ’90s style control of politics by secret forces with the help of pliable politicians and dodgy judicial verdicts.

The writer is a senior fellow with UC Berkeley and heads INSPIRING Pakistan, a progressive policy unit.

Published in Dawn, July 17th, 2018