There’s a gut-wrenching moment in every divorce where mutual friends have to pick a side. Are you with him or her? Your position hinges on who you became friends with first or the depth of your friendship with either party. Pakistani voters are also being asked to pick sides during a messy divorce between politics and policy in the country. That’s because parties aren’t arguing substantive policy differences in their manifestos; instead they’re highlighting political and personal disagreements.
Here’s an example: how many major policy differences can you identify between mainstream political parties (PTI, PML-N, PPP) when it comes to internal security, electricity or foreign policy with neighbours? The differences lie in rhetoric; not policy. All parties want friendly ties with neighbours, including India. All parties want to enhance electricity production, distribution capacity and predictability of tariffs for investors. All parties want to fight extremism in society, allocate more budget for law enforcement agencies and support the military’s operations against extremists.
It’s not as if policy differences don’t exist at all. They do. And we’ll talk about them in a bit. But perhaps the Pakistani voter needs to vote on quality of execution versus quality of policy making because the policy priorities between mainstream parties are converging; 1) Economic growth and higher employment, 2) Fight against extremism and violence within the country and 3) Reliable electricity supply.
There’s even agreement on second tier priorities: spending more on education, enhancing health outcomes for mothers & children and continuing the democratic progress of the country.
PTI prioritises accountability whereas PML-N prioritises the stability of the democratic process and believes civil-military ties are the most important source of institutional break down in the country. So older voters will vote for status quo because they don’t like instability in their fortunes late in life whereas younger voters will vote for change because they’ll be alive long enough to benefit from accountability
This is where the divorce gets interesting: can our parties stay together for the kids? Instead of spewing venom and division, can political parties work together on the issues we agree to as a society, even as they respectfully disagree and battle for votes on their differences in other areas?
Let’s talk about differences in policies for a moment. The biggest difference pivots on corruption and accountability. PTI prioritises accountability whereas PML-N prioritises the stability of the democratic process and believes civil-military ties are the most important source of institutional break down in the country. So older voters will vote for status quo because they don’t like instability in their fortunes late in life whereas younger voters will vote for change because they’ll be alive long enough to benefit from accountability. Neither party’s voter is stupid; they’re merely voting for self-interest.
If you take PTI and PML-N’s economic manifestos, they’re virtually interchangeable; both believe in pro-investor policies and trickledown economics. KP has made significant strides in police reform and education but their economic policies are shockingly similar to PML-N. That’s because there’s a consensus within the economic thinkers of the country.
Except when it comes to corruption.
So, an A grade to PTI for promoting accountability as a priority. What about quality of policy execution? PML-N is known as a doer in Punjab; whether it’s metros, motorways or the dramatic turnaround of Pakistan railways. You can disagree on whether this is the right priority choice but it’s difficult to argue that they haven’t delivered tangible goods. In context of realising most parties converge on policy priorities, it’s interesting to note that PML-N may have a better execution capability than PTI, partly because they know the system better or longer and that works to their advantage.
So what does all this mean as we head into elections? First, Pakistan is much more united and better off than what we see on television. We have a consensus on the major priorities for the country; which is the sign of a stable and strong society. Second, while we have our differences, they’re actually limited to a specific area of concern, which is normal in any society and can be debated intelligently. We don’t need to call our opposing party’s voters jahil; we need to listen to their needs with an open heart.
Finally, all divorces are difficult but not all of them have to get ugly. We can agree to disagree without getting personal and hating everything the other side stands for. Let’s do it for the kids? We were in a marriage once. And for better or worse, our fate as Pakistanis, is tied to each other, not against each other.
The writer is the recipient of the James A Wechsler Award for International Reporting and a graduate of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. He tweets @Mbilallakhani
Published in Daily Times, October 5th 2017.