"A politician thinks of the next election; a statesman, of the next generation."

– James Freeman Clarke

Pakistan is all set to witness the longest election campaign in its history. While most politicians may prefer a shorter period of time, they are now caught in a situation that will not allow them to wriggle out of it easily. Also, it is true that most Pakistanis do not realise the consequences of a long election campaign because if they did, the hype that has been created by the media would have been ignored. In other words, it means that Pakistan is about to witness the most expensive election campaign, where the cost will be beyond the reach of even reasonably well-off Pakistanis, what to talk about those who belong to the middle or low income groups. Since there is neither a clear policy that allows political parties to fund the campaign of their candidates, nor mechanism where the State makes a contribution, the onus rests entirely on the candidate, who decides to contest for either the National or Provincial Assembly seat.

According to an estimate, if a candidate decides to participate in the next general elections and has a political party’s blessing, the expenditure would be something between Rs150-200 million before the Election Day; whereas, those who contest for the Provincial Assembly - particularly in Punjab or Sindh - are expected to spend around Rs100-120 million. The issue, therefore, is that what would happen to the ceiling imposed by the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) on the money spent by a candidate on his election campaign. There are many who argue that the money will be calculated from the day the Commission announces the date. However, it a fact that the election campaign has already started where candidates are not only jockeying for positions within their party, but also posters have be displayed on the streets declaring the prospective candidates for various constituencies. This can be seen in some areas in Lahore, which will also be repeated in other parts of the country.

More so, a majority of Pakistanis, specifically young boys and girls, expect that a positive change will occur after the next general elections. The question, however, is: How will a change take place, if they are once again forced to vote for the candidates who were a part of successive governments or the present ruling elite? The talk of 1970s, when several party workers were allotted tickets by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto who later won the elections, will not happen again; today, all the political parties are expected to give their tickets only to those whom they consider as "winning candidates". So, the recent surge in the ranks of Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaf (PTI) will not create ripples in the country’s political culture; it would remain, by and large, an exercise in the traditional political powerplay. This means that although the next National Assembly may have some new faces, most of them would have deep ties with the outgoing members. Will the new setup be able to usher in a wholesome change in the present political trappings of the country? Perhaps not! Since most of the parties, who have announced their manifestos; have not made any major departure from what the present setup committed to  the people before they came into power.

In case the next elections fail to come up to the peoples expectations, real or imaginary, and does not tackle the enormous challenges that the country is facing, the consequences would be disastrous not only for the political leadership, but also democracy. Now the people want a real change, and mere rhetoric and high-sounding promises are not going to be enough to satisfy the electorate. Hence, it is time that the government, and those aspiring to capture power, must tell the truth to the teeming millions of the country. The people, too, must understand that Pakistan has meagre resources and needs to make tough economic decisions, if it has to break out of the vicious circle of poverty that has enveloped large segments of its society. They must be told that the time for free lunch is over, and hard work and raising productivity are the only tools for the salvation of the State and its people.

Furthermore, reforms in the taxation system can pull Pakistan out of the present economic mess. While self-reliance may be a good slogan, yet foreign loans or assistance, if utilised properly, can nudge the economy forward and improve the living standard of the masses.

Having said that, one hopes that in the coming days and weeks at least all the major political parties will pay the required attention to these issues and develop a consensus in which not only the cost of contesting an election is cut down to reasonable proportions, but also allow the people to know the truth about the issues and challenges. The people should not be misled by promises that are impossible to implement. This is essential for the progress of democracy in Pakistan, which remains the best option because it allows the will of the people to prevail!

The writer has been associated with various newspapers as editor and columnist. At present, he hosts a political programme on Pakistan Television.

Email: zarnatta@hotmail.com