More of the same

Published January 22, 2024

As elections draw near, businesses in Pakistan, much like individuals, harbour a blend of concern and scepticism about the future.

Interestingly, they don’t seem overly bothered by the delay in the release of political parties’ election manifestoes, which are often full of promises that tend to go unfulfilled once the party assumes power.

In addition to numerous prominent businessmen who are well aware of challenges in Pakistan like the restricted manoeuvring space for the government, resource shortages, dependence on donors and political compulsions in an increasingly volatile world, there is the prevailing expectation of more of the same in election manifestoes, even if worded differently.

There’s a shared foresight of a potentially weak coalition government post-elections, a scenario starkly contrasting with what the country needs.

Crafting manifestoes appears to be a pointless exercise since promises tend to go unfulfilled once the party assumes power, say businessmen

“Pakistan requires a robust and decisive political leadership, unwilling to play second fiddle, to rebuild trust and deliver hope above all else. Regardless of the complexity of problems, solutions can be found with genuine intent. We should not underestimate the power of the government machinery, which is perfectly capable of steering things in the right direction if it so desires,” emphasised a tycoon, though unwilling to own his comments.

Businesspeople from smaller provinces and second-tier cities have voiced reservations. They consider the current political leadership ill-equipped to confront and overcome the country’s primary challenges. “It seems like they are competing to win a race of adaptability, attempting to breathe new life into an archaic system that has already outlived its age,” remarked a trader.

Given their assessment of the current power dynamics in Pakistan, the business class has moderated its stance on regional trade. Notably, they have entirely omitted the topic of bilateral trade with India from their agenda.

They also seemed to have reconciled with the idea of the Special Investment Facilitation Council (SIFC) as a pivotal mechanism for mobilising investments for the time being.

A few subdued voices within business circles criticised political parties for delaying the announcement of their election platforms. They believed this delay shifted electoral politics and debate away from substantive issues, leaving space open for families, clans and baradaris to exert control over people and sway voters’ decisions.

“The delay in the release of manifestoes for the 2024 Elections has deprived both the public and businesses of the chance to form an opinion based on parties’ election platform,” remarked an analyst.

The objective cross-comparison of the manifestoes of the three main parties, PPP, PTI and PMLN, was not possible. Apart from PPP, which announced a 10-point election platform, neither of the other two parties have made manifestoes public thus far.

The Pakistan Business Council (PBC), a self-proclaimed guardian of corporate sector interests with a substantial membership base, has compiled a comprehensive economic agenda for the incoming government. This document includes actionable policy recommendations that warrant thorough reading and analysis, not covered here.

In addressing the matter of the delay and its significance, Ehsan Malik, CEO, PBC, remarked in a written response: “Businesses don’t place significant reliance on political party manifestos because, even if they are strong conceptually, experience shows that political will is often too weak for effective implementation.

“Several pressing factors require attention. First, with less than three weeks to elections, none of the major parties have released their manifestos. Second, the poor economic landscape severely limits space for independent initiatives. The inevitability of a 24th International Monetary Fund (IMF) programme looms, accompanied by politically unpalatable structural reforms that are challenging to articulate in a manifesto. Lastly, regardless of the party in power, the SIFC’s influence will persist as a potent driving force.

“Formal sector businesses seek policy predictability, a supportive regulatory environment, reliable and cost-effective energy, fair taxation, market-driven exchange rates, forex access, and steps against smuggling and under-invoicing.

“Alignment of fiscal and monetary and fiscal policies, along with reduced government borrowing, leads to lower cost of funds. Reflecting on the past six months, positive trends led to the IMF’s $700 million tranche under the Stand-By Agreement.

“Businesses hope that the next government will maintain this positive trajectory, holding the potential to enhance Pakistan’s solvency and uplift its human capital, currently ranking the lowest in South Asia.”

Badrudduin Kakar, a prominent businessman from Balochistan, expressed deep concern over the limited attention major parties allocate to the region despite its substantial untapped economic potential.

Mr Kakar lamented the suffering of Balochistan, especially when key positions like prime minister, interior minister and chief justice of the Supreme Court are occupied by natives of the region. He attributed this oversight to the province’s sparse population and limited national assembly seats.

Dr Khurram Tariq, President of the Faisalabad Chamber of Commerce and Industry, views election manifestos more as a pre-election formality. He observes, “It seems that even those crafting party manifestos rarely revisit them until the next election cycle when tasked with creating a new one. They hold little value for businesses, and giving striking similarity in the content of manifestos across parties, differentiation based on programmes become challenging.”

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, January 22nd, 2024

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