Columnist Sunity Maharaj considers the value offered by political manifestos to the electorate; and how the public might better utilise policy documents for better governance:
With just two weeks to go to the election, there is not much that can be done with recently released party manifestos, apart from oooh-ing and aaah-ing, or shaking our heads or nodding at this or that measure.
Still, we must not surrender to promises but strive for understanding above acceptance.
It is one thing to have a series of headline-grabbing promises but quite another for the electorate to make any meaningful analysis of their potential effectiveness, singly or together, or to evaluate their implications for the many different and, often, competing interests.
Even to consider the political challenges of their implementation and management would require much more time. Especially when it comes to economic management, it is difficult to arrive at any definitive position given the externally-propelled nature of the national revenue base.
Coming this late in the game, manifestos serve either to validate one’s support of a given party or, for the undecided, paint a broad-brushed impression of its approach to government.
What manifestos do reveal, however, is the party leadership’s assessment of us and what we want of them. And, judging from the manifestos, we, the people, mostly want to be bribed with little or no thought to the consequences for the country.
It says more about us as a people, and less about our political leaders, that when it comes to serious negotiation of our interests, we are inclined to adopt the role of passive participant in the political process. We let the politics happen to us instead of us happening to the politics, pushing it here and shaping it there so that, in the end, what emerges as the parties’ national manifestos are documents based on wide and deep pre-negotiation.
It says a great deal about the level of our political maturity that political parties can fear that the competition will steal their ideas if publicly disclosed “too early.” Underlying this view is the assumption that manifesto measures are largely headline-grabbers designed to prompt emotional responses when, in fact, they should be the beginning of a public process of negotiation.
For a party manifesto to be politically meaningful, the electorate should have enough time and opportunity for evaluating the implications of the combination of proposed measures. In the absence of this, the electorate runs the risk of ending up as hostage to the party that wins the election.
Like the members of the Highway Re-route Movement, we vote for one thing promised in the campaign only to end up being governed by the exact opposite once the party goes into office.
Let us never forget the absolute betrayal of those voters who were organised to oppose the routing of the highway through their community only to have it rammed down their throats after voting the organisers into office.
For voters like them, what could possibly be the value of a manifesto of campaign promises except as wasted paper and lying rhetoric?
For most people, manifestos come like manna from high. We’re going to get this, that and the other about which we agree to have no say. We are thankful just to receive.
Nobody has ever played the card quite like Kamla, Edition 2015, the benefactor of all things bright and beautiful, having, apparently, dipped into her own pocket to give us everything from highway to high schools and hospitals to hope.
Having accepted our historical role as lambs to be watered and grazed before slaughter, we simply wait to see what bright shiny toy the politicians will pluck from their bran tub of gifts for lucky or unlucky us.
As a serious people, even within the two-week limit left of this campaign we should busy ourselves with taking apart these manifestos to evaluate their impact and workability in order to push the political parties to more viable platforms.
This moment now, before the election, is the time to negotiate, not after, when constitutional arrangements and culture conspire to eliminate us from the power equation.
So alien is this notion of negotiated interests that when presented with the platform of the Clico Policyholders’ Group, the political leader of the People’s Partnership described it as “blackmail”.
One wonders whether she applies the same term to negotiations with political financiers behind closed doors.
It is a sign of our maturing democracy that interests are getting together to present their own manifestos to political parties. This is what we need to begin the process of bringing our democracy alive.
It is a noisy, rackety, clanging thing as interests clash and collide, but it is the only way to enter the political process and claim a space in it. Perhaps, if we push the envelope further this time around, political parties would learn the lesson that they need to give themselves and the electorate much more time to discuss and debate their plans for government before arriving at any declaration of conditional support.
We need to demand this of all parties but more especially of the parties that we support.
Unfortunately, too many, especially professionals with the expertise needed, are too invested in one party or another to risk rocking the boat of their preferred parties by engaging in open debate. Like so many of us, they are trapped in the historic culture of mindless group solidarity where those who are not with us are instantly declared to be against us.
We have two weeks left, people. Let’s get this show on the road by pressing the parties as hard as we can.
The time to question, evaluate, critique, negotiate, and extract public commitment is now.