SPECIAL REPORT: Populism versus pragmatism

SPECIAL REPORT: Populism versus pragmatism

With the future of democracy apparently fairly secure in Pakistan, the young electorate is learning to focus on the quality of the exercise. The growing awareness and citizen activism in an age of vibrant social media mean political parties can no more treat the election agenda as a ritual.

Despite efforts by all parties to articulate a distinct position, the similarities remain striking. In what will likely be a trilateral contest, the three parties are promising the moon — once again — while underplaying the failings in their performance delivery. Long-delayed manifestos seem to be little more than a result of internal contests, pitching …

Democracy in Pakistan is moving from strength to strength. As 106 million get a chance to cast their ballot on July 25, for a record third time, the perception and electioneering skills of political parties, more than their actual election platforms will decide the final outcome.

The late announcement of manifestos by major parties, (the PPP and the PML-N last week and the PTI in the week ahead) days before the general elections lends credence to the assumption that the leadership perceives the election agenda to be one of limited appeal for voters. They know that as democracy stabilises, voters are going to judge them on their performance more than promises. PTI gave Imran Khan’s 11-point agenda for the reference for this report.

Political parties in this nascent democracy are still struggling with articulating their distinct vision and translating it into a future strategy. They do not appear to be too keen to draw public attention to their manifestos. In the election campaign the leadership seems to be consumed in excelling in the ‘science of winning’, and the ‘art of making and breaking deals’ in constituencies to bag maximum seats.

Recognising the value of instant information dissemination with ever deeper penetration of smart phones in the country, each party has put in place a social media cell besides a regular point person for image building and coverage. The weak internal structures of parties mean additional burden on political hierarchy of dealing with intra-party conflicts. From the sit-in at Bani Gala to protests and news conferences, the competing groups and disgruntled elements gave leaders a bitter taste of their own medicine.

In this special report, the Dawn Business & Finance team tries to demystify electoral promises and seeks the opinion of stakeholders for a more informed debate on future options

A close inspection of manifestos, summarised in five points for the readers’ benefit in this report, revealed some interesting facts. Generally, they are reflective of a transformational society where conflicting trends coexist and look more like a work in progress.

The PPP, on the basis of its past positioning and the current manifesto, on paper appears to be the left of the center but its performance has been dismal and the approach comparatively conservative of all the three leading parties. Sindh, the province under its rule for the past decade, trails behind others but Balochistan in terms of all indicators on the current human development index.

The PTI is the most visible on social media with eradication of corruption as its theme. It has also been focusing on prompt delivery of justice and social services. However the party is perceived to be soft on religious militancy, archaic customs, the civil-military power balance and regional trade. Ideologically PTI seems to be on the right of both PPP and PML-N. However, with a youthful following it conducts itself as a 21st century party capitalising technology to its hilt. It did not announce its manifesto till filing of this report.

PML-N has evolved in terms of its orientation and approach over the past three decades. From a pro-establishment conservative party of the 1980s, it has morphed into a party striving to claim more space for political elements and civil society. It is hard to say how much of the shift was planed. Its current manifesto plays up the content on the social sector but seems to be most confident of inherent strength of the country and its potential of capital formation at a rapid pace.

With greater focus on the social content in the election agenda of all parties, a consensus seems to be emerging across the political divide in this area. Each party pledged multiple schemes to address the issues of food, health, education, environment and employment security.

All major parties of Pakistan embrace a market economy and generally support deregulation, privatisation and liberalisation at the basic level, but the conversion ends here. They differ on sequencing and specifics. The divergence is most stark in the proposed economic strategies in the short run.

“Good economics almost always makes good sense. The health of the economy decides the political future of the incumbent. Is Pakistan an outlier where growth rate does not necessarily generate political capital?” asked a political observer.

“On the face of it, for the electorate in Pakistan, political context precedes everything else. They instinctively side with an anti-establishment party. But they are not stupid. For them the litmus test of economic success is their own life. If the people opposed undemocratic regimes it was also because they were excluded from the benefits of higher growth,” remarked another commentator.

By: Afshan Subohi
Source: https://www.dawn.com

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