Who to vote for?

Published September 29, 2023
The writer is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives, and an associate professor of economics at Lums.
The writer is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives, and an associate professor of economics at Lums.

ELECTIONS should happen, and happen on time. There is no excuse for delays. And there is no reason not to give a ‘level playing field’ to all contesting political parties and political leaders.

But we know that there’s been no level playing field in the past and it is unlikely there will be one this time. Elections have always been ‘managed’ one way or the other; it is not likely to be any different this time. In fact, this time, there is not even a pretence of a level playing field.

Even the interim prime minister, who really should not be saying anything on the matter, has said that the ‘law’ might not let some people, or even some parties, participate — but that the election will be a ‘fair’ one nonetheless.

Will the election be fair if a mainstream party or its leader is not allowed to contest? This is too easy a question.

Is Imran Khan more corrupt than some of the other politicians and party leaders in our politics? Is he more corrupt than some of the current and past bureaucrats and generals? Some people might believe that. But for many, this is not believable. Then why are he and the PTI the only ones under the gun? We know the answer to that too, and it is not just May 9. So, most likely if and when elections take place, they will not be conducted on a level playing field, whatever else they may or may not be. Or, should we say they will be as ‘fair’ as the previous ones?

Even if we put all that aside, and even if there was a level playing field, many dilemmas would still remain. Suppose all mainstream parties were running, who should we vote for? All the mainstream parties have, more or less, the same economic agenda. All hold the neoliberal viewpoint of privatisation and liberalisation being the cure for our current ills. They have even shared finance ministers and finance advisers. All of them are going to reduce the fiscal and trade deficits by putting pressure on the poor. All of them are going to continue to reward the elite and specialised interest groups.

Even if there was a level playing field, many dilemmas would still remain.

How do we know this? Experience of the last 30 to 40 years tells us so. Do you really see the PML-N, PPP and PTI as parties who will carry out the deep reforms that are needed? Will they impose income tax on agriculture and traders, introduce property taxes for the rich, impose taxes on real estate, reduce or remove subsidies for the elites (the amount is billions of rupees) and extend benefits to the poor? Will they invest in the health and education of the people of Pakistan? If you think so, I would like to be on to whatever you are on to.

Yes, people might have different estimations of the individual leaders of these parties, and there might be very strong associations with particular parties and/ or particular leaders, but in terms of policy choices, and looking at the experience of the last many years, there seems to be little difference amongst them.

The same issues plague all those who are arguing for setting up new parties. There is always space for new parties. But if it involves the recycling of politicians who move from old parties to new ones, what will it do for the people? We have seen such movements many times. Do you expect deep reforms from Mr Tarin’s or Mr Khattak’s party? The sugar lobby has avoided investigations for long, and continues to benefit from subsidies of all sorts. But we expect these parties, whose leaders are beneficiaries of past policies, including those of the larger parties, to be all for reforms and pro-poor!

Now we hear that Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, Mustafa Khokhar and Miftah Ismail are thinking of making a party too. More power to them. They have come from the same parties they have benefited from; they have been ministers, advisers and parliamentarians representing these parties; and they are going to herald change and reform! We have seen episodes of ‘re-imagining Pakistan’ where there were a lot of things except for re-imagination.

The smaller parties on the left and right seem equally clueless. In any case, they have no chance of winning the number of seats required to have any impact through legislative bodies on the future, at least for now. There might be an individual candidate here and there from these smaller parties who might appeal to the public at the local level, but winning at the MNA/ MPA level is not going to be easy for them, and winning enough seats to have an impact at the provincial or national level looks very unlikely.

Where does that leave us? We have not even talked about the overbearing role of the establishment in, and its impact on, civilian affairs, which makes it all but impossible for democracy to work, for reforms to get through, and for interests — very powerful ones — to be effectively challenged. We can deny the role of the establishment as much as we want, and talk about it can be suppressed too, but it is the same as when Galileo apparently said ‘And yet it moves’.

So, who do we vote for and why? We should vote. It might be unclear how we will get out of the mess we are in, but it cannot be by not voting and/ or not thinking of making democracy stronger. But it does seem that, irrespective of the unevenness of the field, the choice for voters of candidates and parties that will engage in serious reform is not present on the available spectrum. At least not at the moment.

The writer is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives, and an associate professor of economics at Lums.

Published in Dawn, September 29th, 2023

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