Elections 2018: Does regional inequality matter?

Updated 23 Jul, 2018 11:14pm
Lahore’s Gunpat Road crowded with people, autorickshaws and stalls | M Arif, White Star
Lahore’s Gunpat Road crowded with people, autorickshaws and stalls | M Arif, White Star

In all federal states, regional variations in resource distribution and the perceived extent of inequality among different regions are hotly contested issues. The way citizens view regional and provincial inequality in Pakistan has, indeed, resulted in a vibrant discourse about the political and economic rights of different regions which, in turn, has shaped electoral promises by various parties and resulted in the passage of legislation around fiscal federalism.

In the run-up to the 2018 elections, it is, therefore, pertinent to ask: what do citizens across Pakistan think about federal and regional inequalities? The Herald-SDPI survey put this question to the respondents in each province, asking them if their province is getting its rightful share of the federation’s resources. The respondents in Punjab have, in addition, been asked whether they perceive the northern and the southern parts of the province to be getting their rightful share from the resource pool. Similarly, the respondents in Sindh have been asked the same question regarding rural and urban (consisting of Karachi and Hyderabad) areas of the province.

The survey results show that provincial and regional inequality is a big issue for the people in all four provinces and that they will be judging different political parties running for office – as well as the actions of the next government – on this count. The issue is clearly resonating with citizens in Sindh. The survey shows that almost two-thirds of respondents from the province state that its rural parts get less than their rightful share of the federation’s resources. Interestingly, 57 per cent of the respondents from the same province also feel that the cities of Karachi and Hyderabad, too, are receiving less than their rightful share of the resources.

The perception of provincial inequality among voters in Sindh is an important reason why the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) – that spearheaded the passage of the 18th Amendment which has resulted in the devolution of many federal powers to the provinces – retains a strong vote base here. It also explains why the party’s narrative of political rights for Sindh continues to resonate with voters in the province. It may further explain why poor service delivery does not hurt PPP electorally in Sindh.

The survey shows that provincial inequality is also a big issue for the respondents in Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. More than two-thirds of respondents from Balochistan state that their province gets less than its rightful share of the federation’s resources; 55 per cent of the respondents in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa hold the same view about their own province. This suggests that the devolution of power from the centre to the province is likely to remain an important political mandate for the parties that will win electoral majorities in Sindh, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan in the upcoming elections. This, in turn, will shape the debate around the 18th Amendment and the National Finance Commission award for the distribution of federal resources among provinces.

In Punjab, on the other hand, the debate on regional inequality is about the distribution of resources within the province. The issue of regional inequality has been gaining momentum among politicians and political workers in the southern districts of the province in recent times. While the 2018 election manifesto of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) commits the party to developing “a national consensus on the creation of a South Punjab province on administrative grounds,” PPP’s 2018 manifesto gives a clear commitment to carving out a new province in Punjab “in accordance with the Constitutional Amendment Bill already passed in the Senate in 2012-13.”

The basis for these demands is the claim that the provincial government of Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) did not ensure regional equality in access to funds for southern Punjab in spite of the high poverty rates that prevail in that region. PMLN, however, has consistently maintained that it has ensured regional equality in the allocation of development funds and provincial resources.

What is the view of the ultimate arbiter of this debate: the voter in Punjab? The Herald-SDPI survey shows that only 19 per cent of the respondents from the province believe that northern Punjab (including central districts) gets less than its fair share of resources. This changes dramatically when it comes to southern Punjab: approximately half of the respondents from the province believe that its southern region gets less than its rightful share of provincial resources.

Over 40 per cent of PMLN’s own supporters and a similar proportion of the undecided voters in Punjab also feel the same way. This proportion is even higher for those who support either PTI or PPP in Punjab: 60 per cent of them hold the view that southern Punjab is treated unjustly in resource distribution.

All this suggests that a large number of voters in Punjab perceive that regional inequalities exist. Has PMLN missed an opportunity to mobilise votes in southern Punjab by not addressing this issue in its 2018 manifesto? A clear answer will emerge after polling day.

What is clear is that whichever party forms the next Punjab government will have to address political demands for restructuring the fiscal and governance framework of the province.

Ali Cheema is Associate Professor at Lahore University of Management Sciences and Senior Fellow at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives. Asad Liaqat is a PhD Candidate in Public Policy at Harvard University.

Data coordination: Namrah Zafar Moti, Sarah Dara and Aliyah Sahqani.

Sampling and data analysis: Ahsan Tariq, Fatiq Nadeem and Ahsan Zia Farooqui.

Data collection: Institute of Research, Advocacy and Development (IRADA), Punjab Lok Sujag, Nari Foundation, Yusra Jabeen, Sharjeel Arshad, Tariq Ahmed, Gulab Ahmed, Muhammad Arif, Qadir Dino, Zafar Musayni, Saddam Jamali, Mumtaz Sajidi, Fataullah Kasi, Gohar Rafique, Aimal Khan, Muhammad Arif, Aziz Khan, Abid Sherani, Masood Achakzai and Abdullah Jan.

This survey has been financially supported and supervised by the Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI), designed by the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives (IDEAS) and carried out by the Herald magazine.