Elections are coming up in America in a couple of months, and in Pakistan, within half a year’s time. This week, President Barack Obama’s Democratic Party holds its convention, and last week, it was the challenger Mitt Romney’s Republican Party that met to formally elect their candidate for President, adopt policies and boost campaign morale. It all being “only in America”, such events are large and extravagant with tens of thousands of participants. The media coverage is extensive, to say the least! Yes, it is also show and partying, entertainment and fanfare. Politics in America is not cheap and presidential election campaigns, often with simplistic debates and negative TV advertisements describing the opponents, cost more than an arm and a leg. Is it all worth the efforts, we may ask. Do the party profiles and strategies become clearer and the candidates more likeable? Will people vote and do the elections really matter? As for the last question, it is sometimes claimed that the two main parties in America look more and more alike, without significant differences in values and policies. It may be true that they both have become centrist, yet, I believe that they are also quite different. This year, the Republican Party has turned more to the right with conservative populist rhetoric and rallying points. But one thing is what is said during the campaign, quite another how the party would rule if they get into power. President Obama seems to have given up a number of his election promises, partly because the economic recession demanded it, and because his party lost majority in the Congress, but also because some of the promises were impossible to implement in the short run, or to say it figuratively, it takes long to change the course of a huge super tanker, or superpower, in deep sea, even if you try. In debates, we ignore the fact that politicians have to work with a civil service that has its own priorities and advice. It is true that the civil service is meant to implement what the elected government decides. But, in practice, it is not as straightforward, especially not in a country like America with a large bureaucracy and detailed rules and regulations. Take, for example, Pentagon, the military department; it is not easy to imagine that they will do something that they are not convinced is right. Or, take numerous other fields of domestic security and foreign affairs. There are, indeed, limits to the power of politicians in such fields. And that is good because politicians, even candidates for President in America, cannot have deep knowledge of all the issues they are required to decide upon in the world’s most powerful seat. Since America is such a large and self-sufficient country, the politicians and voters often know less about the outside world than many Pakistanis, who have friends and relatives working in the Middle East and other countries. Do you recall when President George Bush was quizzed by a journalist about the names of leaders in other countries when he was on the campaign trail? He could not recall the name of Pakistan’s leader that time, notably Musharraf, although he knew it was a general. Nor did he know how familiar that name and man would become to him after 9/11!This reminds me that the two countries were forced into a partnership because of the so-called war on terror, which none of the leaders had expected. It was, probably, decided more by the US administration than its President and Cabinet, and in Pakistan, there was not much else to do than accept it, never mind that Imran Khan and other Pakistani politicians have been critical of the decision. And I, too, think it was unfortunate to tie Pakistan and America so closely to the unclearly defined war, with long-term negative effects for Pakistan. But could it have been avoided? Probably not!After World War II, Norway was whisked into Nato, the Western European and North American military alliance. But we should remember that it happened at the beginning of the Cold War and Norway was the Western flank of Northern Europe, with a border with Russia, the leader of the Soviet Union and the proclaimed enemy of the West - even though they had been on the same side in the war against Nazi Germany. If Norway had declined Nato membership, it is possible that America and the West might have used force or sanctions against the country. But many Norwegian are against Nato membership. In 1961, a small Socialist Party was founded by a breakaway group from the ruling Labour Party, independent pacifists and others. But Norway remains a Nato member and has even sent soldiers to Afghanistan, not for combat but to help with military and police training. Today, the Socialist and Labour Party are in a coalition government in Norway. I believe it would, indeed, have been better for Norway’s image if we had only engaged in providing development aid to Afghanistan and otherwise worked actively as a peace negotiator, remembering that it awards the Nobel Peace Prize every year. Could the Norwegian politicians have decided differently than they did? Probably not! Never mind that I think they did not do the right thing. Again, it shows the limits to the power of politicians.Back to the US election, and also Pakistani politics; we all want the politicians to solve the countries’ economic problems. Obama and Romney both promise to create jobs and grow the economy, which is on slow recovery. True, certain government policies would help create jobs, such as higher government spending and construction projects, which Obama and the Democratic Party have proposed, but his political opponents don’t want. Or, they could reduce taxes, or give tax relieve for new, small companies, which Romney and the Republican Party want. So far, the elected members of the Congress have not supported Obama’s proposals, and Romney’s proposals would only be tried if he wins the election. It is said that politics is the “art of the possible”, based on take and give and even horse-trading. Somebody said that if you cannot compromise, you should not be a politician or, be married!The effects of government policies would always take time and they would often not have as much impact as hoped. That leads me to my next point: in capitalist countries, such as America and Pakistan, government policies will only have limited effect. No, that does not mean that what the government does is not important, but it means that it can mainly help shape a “conducive framework for development” so that the private sector can flourish. Key government fields are security, international relations, communication, energy and certainly health and education services for all. But most of the productive sectors grow, or shrink, regardless of what the politicians do, or they only act belatedly. Often, situations in neighbouring countries, such as the war in Afghanistan, and trade competition from China, impact on local conditions. There is little Pakistani politicians can do to change that in the short-term. There are also fields where governments should not be much involved at all, notably in the moral and religious spheres. Recently, the Church of Norway seized to be a state church, making all faiths equal, but still with three-quarters of the citizens staying as members of what will now be the people’s church. For Muslims and other denominations, the new situation will be seen as important. It also gives me an opportunity to underline that the government should not have many opinions on people’s belief. That is the domain of religious organisations, and in the end, each individual. We should not push our own religious or moral belief on our neighbour. Politicians are important. After all, in democracies they are the people we elected to represent our interests in the common ruling bodies. But there are many things that they cannot control, and there are other things that they should stay away from. That means that we at local level, in our workplaces, schools, shops, factories, farms, and so on, have to make the best out of the situations we live in. Policies made by the politicians are important, but it is at the local level that production takes place. Even the world’s most powerful man, USA’s President, can only do so much to stimulate his country’s economy, create jobs and get out of the recession. If all politicians had been able to agree, results could have been better. But that is not going to happen. Hence, the innovativeness and creativeness of ordinary people should be realised.

The writer is a senior Norwegian social scientist based in Islamabad. He has served as United Nations specialist in the United States, as well as various countries in Africa and Asia. He has also spent a decade dealing with the Afghan refugee crisis and university education in Pakistan.Email: atlehetland@yahoo.com