With general elections due in a week, all major political parties have released fresh manifestos, making tall promises but offering little explanation for how they plan to achieve their aims amidst prevailing economic turmoil and extreme political polarization.
The first party to announce a “manifesto” was the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), with chief Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari unveiling “10 points” that he claims would curb poverty and boost social welfare. The Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) followed, vowing development as the cure for all that ails the country. The embattled Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), meanwhile, issued an ambitious manifesto promising sweeping changes to the country’s constitutional structure.
All three have similarly offered new slogans to advance their campaigns, with the PPP urging voters to “Chuno Nai Soch” (pick a new mindset); the PMLN calling on the electorate to “Pakistan ko Nawaz do” (grant Pakistan prosperity); and the PTI reiterating its vows of enacting a “Riyasat-e-Madina” in the country.
While all three have made numerous promises in a bid to woo voters, economic and election experts note significant questions about their practicality, maintaining they appear more “wish lists” than achievable aims. Among the key concerns is the more ambitious promises requiring a two-thirds majority in Parliament, which is unlikely to emerge for any party in the upcoming polls. Another aspect is the country’s prevailing economic situation, which requires austerity, not largesse, for future prosperity.
According to renowned economist Haroon Sharif, the PMLN’s promise to create 10 million jobs is hard to digest. “Realistically, 3 million boys and girls enter the labor market every year. Who will give them these jobs, as the state is economically crippled and the private sector cannot absorb them with just two percent growth rate?” he questioned. Rebutting this, however, PMLN Manifesto Committee Chairman Irfan Siddiqui said the media had misread the party’s promise, as it aimed to provide opportunities to 10 million people to create jobs, rather than employing them through the state.
Acknowledging the country’s economic situation did not permit state employment, he said the PMLN aimed to increase the GDP to 6% over five years, and open Information Technology parks in five major cities to train millions of youth and help them secure employment.
Commending the GDP growth target, economist Sharif said it appeared more realistic than the aims espoused by rival PPP. However, he noted, the PMLN’s economic team was led by Senator Ishaq Dar, who preferred a transaction-oriented approach to one that was economic policy-oriented.
Both PMLN and PPP, he regretted, appeared to ignore much-need structural economic reforms, adding in the past they had preferred bailouts to long-term solutions. This, he admitted, was because challenges facing the public are different from those facing the state. “Every party has an ideological difference in the way they look at economy,” he explained, noting the PPP in particular preferred nationalization over market-based expansion.
PPP spokesperson Faisal Karim Kundi, however, said the party’s economic experts were working on structural reforms to steer the country out of its economic crisis.
Referring to the PTI, Sharif said it had appeared to understand the economic reforms required better than the PPP and PMLN when it assumed power in 2018. “[Unfortunately], the moment it started running government, it got captured by two constituents—bureaucracy and its allied partners,” he claimed, noting the party’s inexperience had facilitated bureaucratic governance.
Stressing on the need to depoliticize economic matters, he backed reducing the size of government and adopting severe austerity measures aimed at shoring up foreign exchange reserves.
Economist Nadeemul Haque, meanwhile, lamented none of the parties had paid much attention to the volatile exchange rate and lack of local and foreign investment. “The situation on economic front is absolutely bizarre,” he told Standard. “It’s all about tightening your belt, preparing people for harsh times and telling them we have to make certain readjustments, we have to make the country go, we have to make exports happen and we have to make sure everyone is equally treated on taxation to regulate the economy,” he said, regretting politicians preferred populism that caused problems rather than solving them.
Beyond the economy, all major parties are promising major changes to government. The PMLN, notably, is vowing to abolish the National Accountability Bureau (NAB); restore Articles 62 and 63 to their original form; reform the local government system; and restore student unions.
Senator Siddiqui maintains the party is committed to political and administrative empowerment at grassroots level and wants to ensure local body polls within 90 days of their dissolution. He also stressed all political parties were united in seeking an end to NAB and the restoration of the Constitution to its original form.
However, Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency (PILDAT) President Ahmed Bilal Mehboob is unconvinced. “Such initiatives need a two-thirds majority, and the post elections scenario anticipates more of a hung parliament or coalition set up,” he said, while admitting the goals were achievable amidst unanimity. However, he warned, it is unlikely the establishment would support abolishing NAB, adding it would prove contentious in the absence of any replacement mechanism.
Similarly, he said, PMLN’s promised local government reforms required the party to have a stake in all provinces, which was unlikely. “None of the political parties have taken the local government system seriously or tried to delegate powers to the grassroots level,” he noted.
On reviving student unions—promised by both the PPP and PMLN—he said this was an appreciable step. “Maybe it’s an attempt on the part of the PMLN to win over youth that moved to the PTI after 2013,” he said.
Referring to the PTI’s manifesto, which aims to decrease the tenure of the National Assembly to 4 years and allow voters to “directly” elect the prime minister, Bilal reiterated this required a strong two-thirds majority as it altered the country’s constitutional structure. The move, he added, suggested the PTI intended to convert the parliamentary system into a presidential system, which was unlikely to attract much support from other parties.
Apart from these concerns, economic and election experts agreed the parties’ manifesto all had achievable goals so long as they pursued them effectively.
Art of the possible
Senator Siddiqui, speaking with Standard, maintained the PMLN could achieve all promises in its manifesto if elected into power. On electricity bills, he said the party planned to reduce them by removing unnecessary taxes and providing solar energy to 3.5 million households through soft loans.
The PMLN’s economic team, he added, also hoped to save Rs. 40 billion through tax reforms and attracting greater remittances.
PPP’s Kundi, meanwhile, maintained his party is the “only one” to fulfill all its manifesto promises. Referring to concerns over the practicality of free electricity and handouts for multiple segments of society, he said the party would dissolve ministries at the center already devolved under the 18th amendment, which could save up to Rs. 100 billion. “If we promise to give 300 units free electricity, it is achievable through solar system and green parks in every district and every division,” he added.
Admitting all indications suggested a coalition setup after the elections, he reiterated Bhutto-Zardari’s criticism of PMLN’s Ishaq Dar, maintaining his tenure as finance minister had caused a delay in reviving the IMF program and nearly bankrupted the country.
This supports economist Sharif’s view that any new government would seek to play the blame game as it realized the depth of the crisis. Referring to the PPP and PMLN, he said that if either came to power, it would abandon its populist wish-list for realism and defend itself by hiding behind past failure of governance.