In the 1970s, its manifesto helped propel Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) to popularity and power, firmly entrenching its slogans into the electorate’s hearts and minds. Military regimes that followed put a halt to democratic process and, along with it, sloganeering and all that comes with it. As the May election approaches and many major parties release their manifestos, aimed at swaying undecided voters, the Herald takes a closer look at how closely promises made in these manifestos reflect civil society’s concerns.
Party manifestos are a legitimate part of the democratic process
Yes, for the most part
There is a perception that parties produce manifestos and other policy documents simply because it is a routine exercise to do so, not as a serious undertaking in explaining their positions on important issues. The chequered history of the implementation of manifestos is, indeed, a comment on their effectiveness as policy documents. The parties seem to release manifestos because they are expected to do so by the media and civil society, not because they feel that such policy documents are important. But, regardless of their importance and effectiveness, manifestos still form a part of the democratic convention of campaigning and, therefore, have to be given due respect as manifestations of a party’s programme.
In the wake of the impending election, political parties have been under pressure from civil society groups and activists to include in their manifestos proposals on pressing issues, such as transparency and fairness of the democratic and electoral process, good governance, women’s rights, minorities’ rights, freedom of expression and the right to information amongst others. The roots of the emphasis on such democratic values and principles can be traced back to the lawyers’ movement during the governance of General (retd) Pervez Musharraf, in 2007, that created a new awakening within the civil society about its own power to make itself heard. The movement shifted substantial political space towards civil society members which, helped by the media, started assuming the role of a legitimate fourth pillar of the estate that could challenge the political elite, and create an impetus for political and democratic accountability. In such a scenario, manifestos have become vetting stones to measure policy proposals and agendas of political parties in terms of the aspirations and expectations of civil society. This is where the current legitimacy for manifestos and the need to put them right stem from.
Civil society has a role in policymaking
Yes, but the media must also help
It is only civil society organisations and activists who can remind political parties that, as contenders for power, they have certain social and humanitarian commitments under international laws and agreements. These may not get the parties more votes but, nevertheless, require addressing due to obligations under the United Nations charter and conventions. For instance, Pakistan is committed to protecting child rights under the United Nations covenants so any party aspiring to come into power in the country must be aware of and follow through with such commitments.
But civil society can convey its concerns, expectations and demands to politicians and political parties only through the media. “The media reports on policy documents prepared by civil society activists, in the hope of acquiring the support of political parties,” says Fasi Zaka, one of the main authors of the Education Emergency Pakistan, a report prepared in 2011.
But I A Rehman, senior journalist and the secretary general of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), argues: “Media is not committed enough to democracy or to people’s rights. Its claim to sympathy is only skin deep.”
Do parties adhere to civil society demands when constructing their manifestos?
Yes, but only partially
Ahsan Iqbal, the deputy secretary general of Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN) – one of the individuals responsible for his party’s lengthy manifesto released on March 7 – explains how the document was more than a year in the making. “Consultative meetings with experts and members of civil society were held for months, before ideas and scenarios were fleshed out.”
Anis Haroon, a former chairperson of the National Commission on the Status of Women and now the head of the Aurat Foundation, agrees that parties are taking note of civil society’s concerns while writing their manifestos. She tells the Herald how Aurat Foundation has been consulted by different political parties for its expertise and input regarding women’s rights but she cautions that there still is a vast disconnect between political officials and civil society demands. “We have to remain vigilant and active to see through the change we are working towards,” Haroon says.
Zafarullah Khan, executive director of an Islamabad-based independent think-tank Centre for Civic Education, says the problem lies with the non-institutionalised way the manifestos are written and released. “How many parties have institutionalised the process of building and maintaining specific manifesto cells where experts are brought in to discuss and advise on issues of real concern to voters and civil society members?” he says.
Even when there is an agreement between civil society and politicians on a certain issue, there are plenty of roadblocks that prevent policy documents from entering the stage of legislation. Zahid Abdullah, the programme manager at the Centre for Peace and Development Initiatives who has been working towards building a model law on the right to information, says how protecting civil rights while negotiating the parameters of the proposed law was a challenging task. “When lists of exempt, sensitive information were drawn up, our team had to convince political leaders how it should be a public right to access certain information, as per international mandates.”
Iqbal Ahmed Detho, the national manager for the Society for the Protection of the Rights of the Child, a child rights group, also claims that efforts for mobilising support for rights-based initiatives dissipates often due to a lack of political will, rivalries within the ranks of a political party, or a simple lack of understanding regarding issues.
Khan offers a solution. He wants party manifestos to reflect the aspirations of the entire country rather than the ideals and visions of a few in the party leadership. “Manifestos need to have a consensus of opinion, rather than voicing the ideas of one or a few individuals. They should include considered views, involving debate and discussion instead of echoing a single individual’s ideological viewpoint,” he argues.
Rehman believes that manifestos as they exist today are only compilations of promises made by members of political parties in order to garner votes rather than being serious policy documents. But he expects this to change if democracy in Pakistan moves ahead unhindered. “As democracy develops, however, this process is bound to evolve.”
Political developments impede the implementation
True, but parties need to think ahead
Political analysts point out how Pakistan is entering into a political phase where coalition governments will be prevalent in the foreseeable future. How do the imperatives of remaining in power then force parties to amend their manifestos in accordance with coalition pressures?
Khan is of the view that manifestos become a stumbling block in such a scenario and parties, therefore, need to come together and set a common minimum agenda within which to implement their policy proposals and programmes.
Raza Rumi, director at the Jinnah Institute, a think tank in Islamabad, blames the inability of governments to implement what they have stated in their manifestos on the very nascent process of democracy in Pakistan. He refers to other military-dominated countries such as Thailand, Philippines and Indonesia which have experienced similar problems within a fledgling democratic process. “We need to give more time for democracy to develop before we can begin to start holding governments accountable for their policies,” he adds. Rumi also points out how “parties do not have internal mechanisms to track manifestos and their successes.”
Should parties invest in sectors with no immediate electoral dividends?
Yes, of course, but they generally don’t
The dividends from educating a child accrue decades later — after he or she is able to join the workforce and contribute to the economy. Even then there is no guarantee that the children of today, when they grow up, will remember and vote for the parties whose policies have benefited their educational careers.
The need for a long-term commitment to issues such as education, health, women’s rights and child protection is what holds parties back in investing political capital in them. To put it mildly, says Rehman, “those who do not count in vote banks, are of no interest to politicians.” This, he says, is the reason why women and children are voiceless. “They are not able to bring a political party into power. They, thus, remain marginalised.”
Rather than focusing on addressing policy and structural issues on areas such as education and health, parties instead focus on using them as a means to generate employment opportunities for their voters. “That is why Pakistan’s largest cadre of civil servants is teachers and ghost schools flourish because giving voters jobs as teachers is the most popular way for an elected politician to give back to his constituency,” says Zaka.
To rectify the situation, politics and policy have to been seen as distinct from each other, he says and adds: “Once politics and policy can be distinguished, the whole system will fall into place.”