One curious feature of elections in Pakistan is the relative absence of programmatic campaigns put forward by political parties. Programmatic politics is based on the idea that parties win support by making policy promises, often rooted in their manifestoes, that they would then be expected to deliver on once in power. While parties and their leaders do spend a considerable amount of time offering all kinds of goods and services at rallies and meetings, it would be difficult to label these pronouncements as programmatic campaigns; more often than not, they are simply statements of the banal, pledging to build a road here or a drain there without any of the research, costing, or systematic approach to planning that might otherwise be expected as part of a policy programme.

The degree to which the mainstream parties lack programmatic platforms varies, with some parties doing worse than others. Across the board, however, it is clear that the absence of this form of politics can be attributed, at least in part, to the prevalence of clientelism, whereby individual local constituency politicians enter into relationships with voters in which goods and services – patronage – are traded for political support. This is what lies at the heart of the thana-katcheri politics that is often derided by those who wish to see a change in the status quo; once in power, politicians use their connections to the state machinery to reward their supporters by intervening in local disputes, mobilising the bureaucracy to deliver targeted services, and distributing largesse through their access to state funds and resources.

Clientelistic politics is problematic for several reasons. For one, it reduces questions of public service provision to individual decisions left to the discretion of powerful local politicians, who can use their position to reward their supporters and punish their opponents through the selective provision and withdrawal of patronage. This is in contrast with a democratic ideal in which elected representatives, regardless of their political affiliations and inclinations, should work for the benefit of all their constituents in line with the broader policy programmes of their governments. Similarly, clientelism also has the effect of reinforcing the power of local politicians, providing them with the means through which to further strengthen their vote banks and maintain their presence within the institutional framework of Pakistan’s politics.

As has been discussed before in this space, parties in Pakistan are trapped in a race to the bottom; years of military rule and its associated repression, coupled with abortive and often chaotic transitions to democracy, have created a situation in which the mainstream parties (particularly those not restricted to making exclusively ethnic or religious appeals for support) have failed to develop robust party organisations, constraining their capacity to mobilise voters and come up with coherent policy programmes. This, in turn, fosters a reliance on so-called ‘electables’, who are usually constituency politicians reliant on clientelism for their own political fortunes. This creates a vicious cycle in which parties constantly compete with each other to co-opt and retain electables, which has the effect of undermining attempts to strengthen party apparatuses while also ceding considerable power and influence to these politicians within their parties.

This is important, not only because it helps to explain the poor governance that continues to plague Pakistan, but also because it gets at the heart of another feature of the political landscape, namely the absence of distinct ideological identities for the mainstream parties. As is the case with programmatic politics, the mainstream parties may make all kinds of ideological claims, but there is little evidence to suggest that these statements are borne out of systematic worldviews that inform debates about power and policy. Indeed, it could be argued that programmatic politics is itself dependent on the presence of clear ideological commitments; a good example of this might be the question of whether of the extent to which markets should be regulated, and to what end. Looking past the heated rhetoric of campaign rallies, it quickly becomes clear that there is little to distinguish the mainstream parties from each other when it comes to questions of public policy. By and large, all that can be seen is a common tendency to approach governance in a relatively ad-hoc fashion, with slapdash planning at the centre coexisting with individualistic and localised constituency politics.

To be fair, some of the mainstream parties have begun to show signs that they are taking the question of policy formation more seriously, and it is not coincidental that this change has been accompanied by a slow but sure consolidation of party structures. It is also necessary to acknowledge that the ethnic and religious parties that have footholds in Pakistan’s major cities have long been defined by their espousal of identity-based ideologies and politics. Nonetheless, as Pakistan gears up for elections this summer (assuming there are no delays), it is vital that attention be paid to precisely what differentiates the parties and candidates that will be on offer.

As has been the case in the past, incumbents and challengers alike will claim to stand for change and reform, promising better governance, prosperity, and an end to corruption and incompetence. These claims must be assessed critically; Pakistan faces numerous challenges, both internal and external, and these cannot be adequately addressed by a continuation of business as usual. Voters who desire change would do well to try and look beyond the superficial appeal of charismatic leaders, and focus instead on the questions of substance that should help to decide which parties are more worthy of support in terms of their capacity to actually deliver on their promises.

The writer is an assistant professor of political science at LUMS.

Looking past the heated rhetoric of campaign rallies, it quickly becomes clear that there is little to distinguish the mainstream parties from each other when it comes to questions of public policy.