The forthcoming general election scheduled on January 8, 2008 is likely to be a rather lack-lustre affair and the electorate in general will be apathetic because of the perception that the results may be manipulated or that the final outcome may already be determined and that a voter can do little to change the course of events in the next five years.
Apart from this feeling of apathy, which is likely to be reflected in a low turn-out at the polls, the average voter is also unimpressed by the tall promises made by political parties in the past to improve the quality of life, of which governance forms an increasingly important part. What they promise seems much less important than their performance in delivering them to the people.
In the past six years, the political climate in the country has completely changed, with little room for political activity. The economic scenario has also considerably changed in the last decade, which has rendered the populist politics of the past relatively ineffective. The government’s role in promoting economic development and social welfare has been whittled down. These changes have not yet been factored in to electoral politics.
The political parties chose their own individual strategies, as reflected in their manifestoes, which appeared almost simultaneously less than a month before the scheduled election. Most of the manifestoes hurriedly-put-together were regurgitation of the past manifestoes and rhetoric.
Since it is not possible to discuss the manifestoes of all political parties in detail, we will focus on only those of the three main political parties, the PPP, the ML(N) and the PML(Q).There is hardly a hint of innovation or reference to a research study in formulating the manifestoes.
Among the rhetorical promises are Kashmir’s liberation (often with the well-intended caveat “through peaceful means”), or “Education for all” (i.e. 100 per cent enrolment in the primary sector, although the goal post for the target date varies from 2010 to 2015), “an independent judiciary” (again with differences on whether the deposed judges would be restored and how). Each of the major parties have used eye-catching gimmicks to bullet-point their manifestoes, with the PPPs five Es (Education, Equality, Energy and Environment), PML(Q)’s five D’s (democracy, development, devolution, diversity and defence) and PML(N)’s 5-point agenda whose first letters form the word “Restoration”. (Restoration of judiciary, democracy and the 1973 Constitution; Elimination of the military’s role in politics; Security of life and property; Tolerance; Overall reconciliation; Relief to the poor; and Education and employment.) In terms of platitudes and banalities, the PML(Q)’s manifesto takes the cake. Its 22-point agenda for “political reforms, good governance, and economic development”, surprisingly includes, among other objectives, “an independent judiciary to provide justice to all”, “to avoid governance through ordinances”, which run completely counter to its recent record. But the one that tops them all is the tautological statement: “To provide more employment opportunities by eradicating unemployment.”
However, there seem to be genuine differences on substantive on political and economic issues among these major political parties. While the PML(Q) manifesto argues for continuity in both political and economic fields, the PPP and PML(N) favour a radical break from the policies of the Musharraf-led PML(Q) regime. In particular, they want the rescinding of the amendments to the 1973 Constitution made during the Musharraf regime, except for those relating to joint electorates, representation of women and minorities and the lowering of the voting age to 18 years.
The PML(Q) manifesto takes a much tougher stance on the issues of restoration of the judiciary and the military-civilian confrontation than the PPP, giving some credence to the existence of a deal with Musharraf, although it does require that the defence budget to be presented to and be approved by the Parliament. It also wants the curriculum of the defence academies to be sensitive to the imperatives of democracy and that commissioned officers be required to take an oath of office like the services chiefs. Whether all this will prevent the military horse to crash out of the locked barn door, as it has often done in the past, is a moot question.
Both the PPP and the PML(N) manifestoes differ significantly from the PML(Q) on economic strategy issues and in giving the social issues, including poverty, education and inflation, much greater emphasis than the current regime. While the PML(N) and PML(Q) both seem to be strongly wedded to the Washington Consensus mantra of privatisation, deregulation and liberalisation and to the trickle down effect of growth as the main means of alleviating poverty, the PPP manifesto argues for greater activism by the state in alleviating poverty and in creating employment, which along with education, is a crying societal need today.
The PPP’s manifesto rightly emphasises the creation of guaranteed employment programmes for the poorest 25 per cent of the population. It is important, however, that these programmes be linked to the building of productive infrastructure to avoid the inflationary pressure and are not created merely to distribute doles. In order to prevent the possibility of elite or non-poor capture of the benefits of such a programme, it is also necessary that a right to information act should also accompany such a programme which would make it transparent and free from political abuse.
Although the three political parties’ manifestoes are more articulate about economic policies than other parties, they still fail to present a comprehensive policy package that would attract the disadvantaged sections of the society who were bypassed by the false economic boom and prosperity created in the last few years, which touches the life of only the privileged sections of the society. Basic questions, such as land reforms, industrial restructuring, rising economic inequalities, abolishing the two-tier system of access to social services, such as education, health, housing and transport, the rampant increase in credit-financed consumerism, are issues barely touched upon, much less offered a solution.
According to the back-of-envelope calculations of Mr Shahid Javed Burki in the Dawn’s opinion columns, 45 million out of 80 million eligible voters are among those who have failed to derive the benefits from the high growth of last six years or so. This is a potential that the PPP and the PML(N) could have tapped – the latter could also bank on an additional 10 million which only partly benefited from the Musharrafian growth.
The challenge for these parties is to mobilise these disadvantage groups by assuring them a fairer deal in sharing the fruits of growth, which often conflicts with their desire to placate the vested interests. If they succeed in winning the confidence of these disadvantage groups, they could translate the simmering volcano of discontent hidden underneath the visage of calm and nonchalance into a major election upset, such as the 2004 Indian elections which demolished the BJP’s India shining euphoria.
Tragically, there is no admission of the serious mistakes committed in the past by the political parties themselves when they assumed power, which could win them the confidence and credibility of the electorate. A major reason for finding the country in its predicament is their inability to recognise those mistakes and to evolve a common agenda, not only for the election, but for the country’s long-term development. If they were capable of doing it, they could possibly have paved the way for healthy coalition politics.
Hopefully, if these two major parties, along with the nationalist groups in the minority provinces, gain a substantial majority of seats in the Parliament, despite the heavy pre-poll, as well as during and after poll rigging, which is inevitable, they may be able to agree on a common minimum agenda for the purpose of erasing the Musharraf legacy of denial of rights to the common people and for creating and perpetuating social and economic disparities, without tampering some of the positive, if insubstantial, steps he was forced to take to legitimise his regime.
(The article was written before PML(N) announced its boycott of elections)