This week, 128.5 million Pakistanis, representing over half the country’s population, will get a chance to cast their ballot to choose their government for the fourth time since 2008. This marks a significant milestone in the nation’s democratic journey, having emerged from a decade of General Musharaf’s Martial rule.

The actual turnout will only be evident after the election day. Several observers are not optimistic and anticipate a low participation rate. Factors such as alienation owing to perceived inequality in the electoral process, delayed manifesto announcements, and a lack of clear distinction among political parties based on their election programme may discourage people from showing up at polling centres on election day.

A manifesto is a document that serves three purposes: demystifying a party’s politics, solidifying its support base and enticing neutrals. Despite the less-than-impressive track record of all three pan-Pakistan parties, Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N), Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP), Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI), each, having been in power before, is well aware of the challenges facing Pakistan.

“Party manifestos often unveil what is necessary but conceal what is essential,” warns an analyst, alluding to the latent agendas that parties choose not to manifest for obvious reasons. At times, this hidden undercurrent holds more potency and determines the direction of the economy and society if these parties succeed.

Parties favour public/private partnerships over privatisation for loss-making state-owned enterprises

Granting the benefit of the doubt to all major political parties in Pakistan, he acknowledged their good intentions but pointed out shortcomings in their future plans. “In their attempt to align with the establishment and powerful bilateral/multilateral donors, without losing their public appeal, they tend to drift too far,” he remarked.

This sentiment was also echoed by the Pakistan Business Council (PBC), which noted India’s omission in the discussion on regional trade in the recently announced manifestos.

Upon reading the manifestos of the leading parties, one is struck by their similarities. The differences appear relatively minor, more in form than in substance.

They all champion the cause of the underprivileged and neglected, competing in concession and subsidies in health, education, housing and utilities if voted to power. However, none of them offer a workable plan to alter the system that perpetuates poverty and generates a poor population.

The growing inequality, economic, regional, gender, etc, undermining structures at their core, did not receive the attention it deserved despite its profound social, political, and economic consequences.

There is a shared perspective among political parties regarding inflation and unemployment. Instead of tracking the root causes of these critical issues, the emphasis is on promising immediate relief through doubling wages/salaries.

However, the economy demands a surgical approach to overhaul the entire framework. This necessitates curbing the culture of patronage, controlling levels of wastage and underutilisation, and enhancing the productivity of services, factory and farm workers.

All parties advocate for a lean and clean government, each offering its own set of solutions to address this issue. Some parties present more detailed plans than others. While there is a direct and implied criticism of the capitalist model in some instances, unfortunately, an alternative to the market economy is absent.

A few days ago, M Abdul Aleem, Secretary General, Overseas Chamber of Commerce and Industry, shared his insights on political parties and their manifestos. In response to a query on this matter, he stated, “There is a notable departure from the past, where political party manifestos influenced business decisions. Given the country’s poor economic performance over the past many years, it is evident that none of the leading political parties could deliver on their manifestos.

Manifestos unveil what is necessary but conceal what is essential and this hidden undercurrent determines the direction of the economy

“We recommend that political parties realign their economic agendas by considering a global perspective over domestic gains. Given the necessity for Pakistan’s increased integration with the global market, aligning economic strategies with global dynamics becomes crucial for achieving comprehensive economic prosperity. The parties need to be transparent about how they plan to boost investment, especially foreign direct investment (FDI), in the country.”

A vibrant platform of the private sector in Pakistan, the Pakistan Business Council shared its opinion. “Economic content in party manifestos can’t comprehensively address deep structural flaws. Despite their limited reach, parties often shy away from unpopular but essential reforms needed for economic stability.

“Notably absent are mentions of a new International Monetary Fund programme or the imperative to reprofile external debt, critical steps with potential harm to our fragile economy if delayed.

“All manifestos acknowledge the need for tax reforms and enhanced fiscal discipline. While the PML-N aims for an unqualified reduction in corporate taxes, PTI sets a target to reduce it from 29 per cent to 20pc, eliminating withholding and advance taxes.

“However, no party commits to rationalising taxes for the salaried class to address the current brain drain. Surprisingly, PPP aligns with PTI in proposing taxes on agriculture income.

“PTI also plans a carbon tax on heavy polluters, removal of tax incentives and subsidies for underperforming large businesses, the reimposition of wealth tax, and advocates incentives for card-base transactions over cash.

“Parties favour public/private partnerships over privatisation for loss-making state-owned enterprises, with power distribution companies’ privatisation being an exception.

“All parties offer recommendations to address energy circular debt, promoting renewable energy and enhancing agriculture practices. PPP and PTI call for a National Finance Award review, each with different intentions.

“Manifestos also touch on deregulation and reducing government size, with PML-N proposing organisational mergers for efficiency. The manifestos align with recommendations from PBC, especially PML-N, mentioning Special Investment Facilitation Council as a facilitator for economic reforms, signalling hope for the continuity and political will.”

The extensive report of the Pakistan Institute of Development Economics (PIDE), titled ‘PIDE Reform Manifesto: Transforming Economy and Society’, seems to be an intriguing and controversial document upon initial reading, providing ample substance to spark economic debate in the country. However, the initial pages give the impression of critiquing the political class more than addressing the flawed framework.

American economist Nobel Laureate Milton Friedman’s oft-repeated quote looks relevant here: “One of the great mistakes is to judge policies and programmes by their intentions rather than their results.”

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

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