There seem to be contrasting bits of evidence to show the attitude of political parties towards manifestoes. Manifestoes are supposed to represent the promises made by the parties to the electorate of what they plan to do if elected to office. In more experienced democracies, party manifestoes have been added by candidates to their promises to the constituency to make individualised documents. However, not only do parties with a chance of forming the government issue manifestoes for elections, but so do parties without any chance of doing so.

Any party which does not put up candidates on a simple majority of the 207 constituencies of the National Assembly cannot become the largest party there, and thus cannot form the government. It may obtain a certain number of seats, and become a junior partner in a coalition. It may make it a condition of joining the coalition that certain of its manifesto promises be adopted by the coalition. However, there has been little of that in Pakistan. More likely to be of importance is the allocation of ministerial portfolios.

The Awami Workers Party (AWP) only got 0.4 percent of the vote in 2013, and may do about the same this time. It failed to win a single seat, was unable to join the coalition, and thus to have its manifesto even partially implemented. Yet it issued a manifesto. Similarly, another party which issued a manifesto was the Hizbut Tahrir. Not only is the party not registered with the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP), it is banned. It was banned at the time of the 2013 election, when it issued a manifesto. Apart from the ECP not registering it because it is proscribed, it would not contest the election otherwise, because it is one of those religious parties which hold that elections are against the sharia (and thus the Constitution and the ECP).

On the other hand, there were parties like the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) which are vying to form the government. Their candidates are thus not only proposing schemes of all kinds for their constituencies, but by virtue of their party affiliation, stand for the contents of the party manifesto.

However, a recent study by the Institute for Policy Reforms shows that these parties do not necessarily follow their manifestoes, perhaps because their initial contents do not provide the prerequisites. There is a hidden factor which is not mentioned in the manifestoes, that each of these parties is actually a political vehicle for certain personalities. The PML(N)’s main purpose is to have Mian Nawaz Sharif elected Prime Minister, the PTI’s to have Imran Khan and the PPP to have Bilawal Bhutto Zardari. Candidates provide a tacit commitment, not so tacit if one heard their supporters’ speeches, to bring those respective individuals to office.

One reason why those individuals are not tied down by the manifestoes issued by their parties is that this commitment implies a trust by voters in the party leader. The party leader is supposed to use whatever means necessary to solve their problems, not necessarily fulfil the manifesto promises made.

The manifesto thus becomes something other than just a list of promises. British party manifestoes have been described by one commentator as ‘political journalism’. That is actually quite accurate, for a party manifesto has to first identify the various problems confronting the country before it can propose solutions. It also has to argue the case of why the party’s solutions are the best way of dealing with the problem identified.

This explains why parties without a hope of attaining office issue manifestoes: they provide an opportunity to propagate those parties’ analyses of the problems confronting the country, and their solutions. They also act on an audience attuned by the coming election to ideas about the direction of the country.

The IPR research on manifestoes might give an inkling of why parties without a chance of governing issue manifestoes. “Our research shows that the manifestos mostly seem forgotten once elections are over. If the parties were serious, manifesto ideas must translate to policies, programmes, and projects soon after assumption of power. But we see little evidence of that. They achieved a small part of what the manifestos set out to do.

“It is not clear also if parties are realistic in announcing their promises. There is no evidence to suggest that they relate manifesto ideals to available financial and institutional resources. Nor did we find them to budget for their agendas or dwell on the capacity of organizations expected to deliver the targets. Consequently, once in power, the parties make scant effort to monitor progress.”

So if parties that actually gain power ignore their manifestoes, why should parties not contending for power issue manifestoes even though everyone, including voters, knows they will not be implemented? The IPR research found that while the PML-N and the PPP showed progress on 29 percent of their promises, the PTI showed 23 percent. The PML-N showed underperformance for 42 percent of its promises, the PPP for 43 percent and the PTI for 52 percent.

The Hizbut Tahrir’s manifesto quite naturally calls for Islam as providing the solution to all problems, but it adds the perspective of a global party. The manifesto has been issued by the Pakistan section of a worldwide party. On the other hand, the AWP does not claim to be an international one. If it was an older time, it might have been, but after the demise of the USSR, the Left has had to shift for itself. The AWP says it is beyond the sectarianism of the past, of the old divisions into Stalinist, Trotskyist and Maoist, and is a genuine party of the Left.

It is interesting that both the Left and the Right have generated parties which do not rely on constitutional means to implement their programmes. Both are revolutionary parties, and both seek to overthrow the current state structure. At the same time, the elections have space for both the Right and Left. The Left has got the PPP, as well as the ANP and the NP. The Right has got the PML-N, the MMA and now the TLP, ASWJ and MML as it dissolves into sectarian components.

The PTI is probably a centrist party, which indicates that it lacks any ideological conviction beyond making Imran Khan PM. But that suits its backers. Some tried the Left a long time back, in the 1951 Rawalpindi Conspiracy, with the result of a rightist backlash that led to the so-called ‘Mullah-Military Alliance’. And then there was Ziaul Haq, who represented another attempt. The PTI’s lack of an ideology is thus convenient.

The writer is a veteran journalist and founding member as well as executive editor of The Nation.

It is interesting that both the Left and the Right have generated parties which do not rely on constitutional means to implement their programmes.