As a matter of principle, election manifestos outline the priorities and goals set by a political party based on a best case scenario. That’s the reason the manifestos abound in rosy promises and ambitious commitments, which in practice may be difficult to fulfil, as the actual course of events normally falls well short of the assumed scenario. The same is true of PML-N’s 2013 election manifesto.
As the manifesto brings out, putting the economy back on track is the foremost item on the PML-N’s agenda for change. This is hardly surprising as the economy is the mainstay of a country’s strength and during the last five years, Pakistan’s economic fortunes suffered shipwreck. Lacklustre growth – less than three percent per annum on average – was accompanied by persistently high inflation, mounting fiscal deficit and low investment-to-GDP ratio thus putting the country in the grip of stagflation.
The PML-N aims at a turnaround of the economy during the next five years: The growth rate will be doubled to about six percent; fiscal deficit will be almost halved to four percent of the GDP, tax-GDP and investment-GDP ratio will be pushed up to 15 (by six percentage points) and 20 (by eight percentage points) percent respectively.
If an economy is to nearly double its growth rate and investment level, it must also double its national savings as well as ensure that the higher savings are channelised into productive investment. Doing this in the face of a precarious security situation and absence of business confidence in the political and economic environment will be quite a big challenge.
The same is true of fiscal deficit, which can be brought down either by cutting back on public expenditure or driving up government revenue. Curtailing public expenditure is easier said than done. Reduction of development spending will slow rather than accelerate economic growth.
Curtailing current spending has problems of its own. The two major heads of current expenditure are debt servicing and defence spending. The former is an obligation that the Pakistan government owes to its creditors, while the latter is rooted in the pre-eminent position of the armed forces in the country’s political system. Add to these, Pakistan’s involvement in the war on terror, which is eating up a big chunk of national resources.
And in case the elections produce a hung parliament and resultantly a coalition, which is being widely predicted, putting in place a large cabinet will become a matter of political expediency. In short, substantial reduction of the public expenditure is either not advisable or not possible. This leaves increase in public revenue as the only way to curtail fiscal deficit.
The PML-N draws its strength from the business class, which is averse to paying more taxes. Some time back when the government, in order to honour its commitment with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), wanted parliament to authorise it to introduce the reformed sales tax (GST), the PML-N was among the parties which had resisted the move.
Yes, public revenue can be raised by curbing tax evasion, instead of imposing new taxes. Yet, doing this has stumped successive governments and the PML-N’s may also meet the same fate. That said, shoring up tax revenue substantially is not impossible, provided the party in power is not short on the political will to do so.
As for creating more than three million jobs the same is chiefly contingent upon the pace of economic growth, particularly the labour intensive manufacturing sector. In order to create jobs in state owned enterprises (SOEs), they will have to be made profitable for it doesn’t make economic sense to give people employment in loss making organisations. However, this will entail restructuring of SOEs, which will shed jobs at least in the short-run – a major reason that these enterprises are not restructured. Will the PML-N set aside this political expediency?
Education is the key to development and the PML-N is committed to doubling national education spending to four percent of the GDP. A nice commitment, but the only problem as to its fulfilment is that this will require a trade-off forcing the government to cut back its spending on some other head. But under which head?
It’s exceedingly difficult to curtail expenditure on any major item, such as debt repayment, defence, security, or general administration. In view of such constraints, governments, much against their wishes, maintain education spending at two percent of the GDP. The same goes for health expenditure which is to be raised to two percent of the GDP.
Pakistan is facing an existential threat at the hands of militants. The PML-N manifesto outlines a comprehensive plan of action including social, political, economic, and administrative initiatives to deal with the menace. One of the highlights of the plan is that the seminaries or madressahs will be required to follow the same curriculum as the mainstream academic institutions.
The seminaries are the breeding ground for militancy and it will be a big achievement of any government if it does away with their indoctrination of young, impressionable minds. That said the PML-N has made electoral alliance with the JUI-F, which is the principal patron and supporter of the madressah system of education, and other religious parties. Therefore, it’s very doubtful whether the party, in case it comes into power, will be successful in disciplining the seminaries.
Moreover, why stop at changing the madressah curriculum? Why not abolish the seminary system altogether, given that it has done so much harm to our society? Perhaps, no political party in Pakistan is bold enough to champion this cause, much less the PML-N which is a conservative party.
Alleged corruption has been a most convenient stick to beat the PPP government with. On its part, the PML-N adopted a high moral posture during the last five years. The party election manifesto provides that a high-powered, autonomous accountability commission will be set up to check corruption. This, again, is a nice commitment. However, such commissions or cells have been put in place in the past including the present National Accountability Commission (NAB). However, these watchdogs were used either as a device to victimise political opponents or cover up misdeeds of the party in power.
As things stand today, corruption has become a way of life in Pakistan, a part of the national culture so to speak. However, this is no reason to cast aspersions on PML-N’s intentions and one hopes they prove as good as their word.
Finally, we turn to foreign policy and national security. Pakistan’s geo-strategic location, which should have been one of its greatest assets, has turned out to be one of its greatest weaknesses. This has a lot to do with the country’s foreign and security policies, which have antagonised the neighbours and turned the country into an epicentre of terrorism, all in the name of religion and strategic depth. A complete shift in these policies is in order. However, this can’t come through unless the elected leadership steps forward and begins calling the shots.
The PML-N manifesto rightly underlines the need for public representatives to take control of the nation’s foreign and security policies. Would the party, if it formed the next government, be able to do so? That’s the question.
The writer is a freelance contributor.