Since the caretaker government was sworn in on June 11, 2018, the country has been shaken by transfers and postings of civil servants. This shuffling of bureaucrats, from a station house officer to the top civil officer, has raised a pertinent question about the neutrality of the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP): whether it is providing a level playing field to all 21,482 aspirants for 1,070 provincial and National Assembly seats?
The caretaker government has assigned an estimated 11,000 civil servants (BPS 14 to BPS 22) new positions in different ministries and divisions. These include all district police officers, inspector generals, chief secretaries, heads of autonomous bodies and Intelligence Bureau and NACTA. This list is long and arduous.
While many retired civil servants see this as a positive step taken by the ECP and caretaker government towards fair elections, some maintain a shakeup of ‘influencers’ is not a solution.
Haroon Khan Tareen, a retired grade 22 officer, says, “Administration or the enforcement machinery has been weakened by wrongful promotions. Most of them are not entitled to these senior positions. The cronies in senior positions will definitely work to secure interests of the outgoing government that placed them in important positions.”
Therefore, he adds, transfers of such senior officers are a “must”.
ECP officials estimate that roughly Rs21 billion will be spent on the election from the national exchequer. “The caretakers have only added to this cost of elections. It’s an expensive exercise in futility,” says Afzal Shigri, former IG Police.
“Transfers and postings are all about gimmickry. New appointees have no security of tenure. They are likely to act as carbon copies for the interim government,” adds Shigri.
While extending his criticism to the ECP, he adds that it does not have the capacity to provide a level playing field to political parties. “It acts like a spectator, and extends half-hearted intervention only where the parties are weak.”
The former IG thinks the authority of caretakers is superficial. “Their orders are generally ignored by bureaucrats.”
Spokesperson ECP Altaf Khan says, ECP bans transfers, postings, recruitments, release of development funds to stop influence-peddlers access to government resources. “This is an important exercise to conduct free and fair elections where influencers cannot operate.”
Ahmed Bilal Mehboob, President PILDAT, thinks the bureaucracy must be shaken up if it is suspected to favour a political party. “However, when the civil service is safeguarded and independent, large scale transfers during election period may not be necessary.” The new Election Act 2017 has vested a lot of authority in the ECP, and it is now up to the poll body to make use of these powers to discharge its constitutional responsibilities, he adds.
“We need to evolve to a scenario for 2023, where we do not need to appoint a caretaker government to hold election. The same elected government with same bureaucracy should continue during the elections with reduced powers as provided in the new law,” says Mehboob, adding that we should hope that “the ECP is able to hold credible elections in 2018 which restores people’s trust imposed in the ECP, to act as a de facto government during election like many other democracies”.
Senior columnist Muhammad Ziauddin says we need a strong ECP, “led not by a judge but a senior civil servant of good reputation. We need to empower senior civil servants who may not be influenced in the process of elections. This has already happened in India”.
Senior political analyst, Raza Rumi, tells TNS that the role of caretaker setup during elections is contentious. “In Bangladesh it led to the breakdown of the civil administration leading to a military coup in 2007. In Pakistan, the political elite amended the constitution under the 18th Amendment to gain control over the caretakers. Experience of 2018 shows when extra democratic forces are at work, the caretaker government becomes ineffective. For instance, in the current election cycle the centre of power appears to be elsewhere and not with the caretaker administration.
“Unfortunately, the 2018 elections suffer from pre-poll manipulations. The episode of Imran Khan’s friend on the ECL, him being bailed out, confirms this impression.”
Haroon Rashid, Editor BBC Islamabad, says, “Not all bureaucrats are prone to pressures or hold a bias for a political party. Transferring thousands of officials for a short time freezes government functioning for a couple of months, which a country like Pakistan cannot afford.”
Rashid says in most democracies, the incumbent government automatically gets into a caretaker mode with limited powers to only run day-to-day affairs. “I think it will take time but we need to set a target for ourselves — that ultimately caretakers will be done away with.”
He thinks that for the ECP to be independent, it must have its own finances to run. “It has grown in stature over the recent years, but still a lot more needs to be done. It needs to be proactive to achieve the aim of holding fair elections.”
Senator Osman Saifullah Khan observes that in the absence of independent bureaucracy, police, other regulatory authorities, etc. the fear and reality is that incumbent government may take executive actions to improve its winning chances. “There are not sufficient checks on the powers of a sitting government to stop them from this manipulation. True democracy is more than just elections.”
On a more optimistic note, he adds, “When democratic norms and culture will take root in Pakistan, we may be able to do away with the caretaker government system, which after all is one not common to most democracies. I also do not think that wholesale transfers and postings are necessary during a caretaker regime.”