The manifestos of major political parties announced just days before the Feb 8 polls display their leadership’s approach to making promises to voters and obtaining their necessary approval without giving enough time for any meaningful public scrutiny. Thus, there is also a missing link of accountability of elected representatives by the voters.

An impression has gained ground that financial constraints undermine the viability of the programmes and policies outlined in the manifestos. Critics also say promises have been made without offering concrete implementation plans. Then, as generally perceived, no political party is in a position to secure a two-thirds majority to bring about a constitutional amendment.

With a more insightful view, analysts note that the major parties’ approach is less about choosing between competing ideologies and more about the personalities of key leaders in the running. They see very little to differentiate the major parties ideologically.

This state of affairs is attributed to the repeated interference in the country’s natural political development, inducing political parties to abandon their pursuit of ideologically defined pathways to progress gradually and instead focus on the time-consuming task of survival and self-preservation.

Some of the smaller parties have made commendable contributions to the political culture, though largely negligible

PML-N supremo Nawaz Sharif has recently declared his intention to overhaul the country’s political system, which has led to the ‘unceremonious departure of prime ministers.’

PPP also promises a shift from a ‘security state’ to a welfare state when it is time to build a democratic and egalitarian society. Without the strong support of democratically empowered people at the grassroots, political parties may have to lean for support on power centres.

As widely acknowledged, political parties are not accountable to the voters. Chief of Army Staff Syed Asim Munir recently said the current constitution fails to ensure the accountability of the lawmakers before the end of their terms. “If the constitution is amended and more than 50 per cent of the voters in a constituency can vote to unseat a sitting member, then you will see these politicians performing. An elected government doesn’t get a free pass,” he observed.

The PML-N manifesto looks very ambitious when it promises, for example, to reduce poverty from nearly 40pc to less than 25pc — lifting nearly 40 million people out of the poverty net — in five years.

On January 29, the National Economic Council formally decided to exclude the financing of provincial projects from the federal Public Sector Development Programme for the next fiscal year except for integrated districts of Pakhtunkhwa and the 20 least developed districts of other provinces.

Scholar Dr Noman Ahmed says public resources for development will remain scarce — there may be marginal variations without any drastic change, at least in the near future.

One may add that private sector investment is also sluggish. Last week, the International Monetary Fund lowered Pakistan’s GDP growth rate to 2pc for the current fiscal year from its October estimate of 2.5pc.

However, the good news is a consensus among political parties on issues such as human resource development or empowering the local bodies system. To strengthen democracy, the PPP’s manifesto says it will empower the local government system and devolve powers as per the 18th Amendment.

Similarly, PML-N has promised constitutional amendment to further strengthen the financial and administrative authority of local governments, including elections within 90 days of dissolution. The PML-N also wants to introduce a ‘Panchayat’ System for alternate dispute resolution. In the past, the system was used to decide minor offences and only cases of serious crimes were dealt with by the courts.

When in power, PTI supported the demand of Sindh’s urban areas for effective and representative local institutions, though with a slightly different approach.

The manifesto of Sindhi’s essentially rural-based Grand Democratic Alliance (GDA) says it would empower the district government administration. Its 10-point document redefines the functions of local bodies to run affairs of agriculture, education, health and social sector, religious affairs, water supply and sewage in their respective jurisdiction. And resources, it says, would be distributed fairly in the provinces.

Interestingly, the GDA move to empower local bodies follows the recent MQM-P declaration that it did not want to create a separate province, opening up a path for rural-urban political cohesion, which is vital for accelerating socio-economic progress in the province.

As analysts point out, despite their limited impact on the broader framework, some of the smaller parties have made commendable contributions to the political culture, though largely negligible.

For instance, it may be noted that they have helped to keep the issue of empowering local governments, and the absence of grassroot democracy, under the spotlight as an important national issue. In case of a split electorate mandate, the role of smaller parties joining coalition governments may acquire more space.

For people-centred economic development in all domains of individual and social life, participatory democracy at the grassroots level is inescapable.

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, February 5th, 2024

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