According to the constitutional scheme in place, there are two institutions that are together responsible to hold elections in the country — the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) and the caretaker government. The qualifier “free and fair” for elections is a given. Of the two institutions, the caretaker government is to assist the ECP in creating a conducive environment for the holding of free and fair elections which essentially is the job of the latter.
Apart from that, it is supposed to be involved in the day-to-day running of the government machinery and is expected to stay neutral.
This time, for most part of its 60-day tenure, the role of caretaker government has remained a subject of huge debate which, in many instances, was found to be seriously lacking and controversial. Some observers of electoral politics have even concluded the caretaker government setup has utterly failed in bringing any neutrality and fairness to the system, and should therefore be abolished.
This is a serious matter that needs to be looked into, not just from systemic and historical points of view but also by taking into account the ground realities whereby certain forces put pressure on the system to seek favourable outcomes in the elections. However, being the face of the government, the caretakers must bear all the brunt.
To reiterate it, Pakistan is one of the very few parliamentary democracies in the world that rely on the concept of a neutral caretaker government, constituting of people who do not belong to the political class (our familiar term is “government of technocrats”). Normally, as countries go into election mode, the sitting government assumes an interim role in those few months — of holding the elections and minimal responsibilities otherwise — while the election commission has extraordinary powers. This is roughly what happens in India and United Kingdom.
For Pakistan, it was only logical that the idea was first brought up in the assembly that was constituted through the party-less polls of 1985. That was the first election to be held after 1977, etched in the collective memory for allegations of rigging that led to the worst military dictatorship. The shadows of dictatorship still loomed large over that assembly. The dictator-turned-president saw to it that he reserved the power to dissolve the assembly and install a caretaker government which, understandably, was without a prime minister. This happened in 1988 when the government of then Prime Minister Muhammad Khan Junejo was dismissed, the assemblies dissolved by then President Ziaul Haq and the first caretaker government was put in place.
The idea, however, stuck. The subsequent ten or eleven years are a sorry tale of elected governments’ tenures cut short by presidents on the pressure of unelected forces, culminating in a full blown martial law in 1999. The caretaker governments in those years were all made controversial in one way or the other, failing to provide a level playing field to all contestants.
After 2008, a serious effort was made to bring more stability to the system. New rules were devised and legislation made to strengthen the ECP and provide for a more neutral caretaker setup by allowing a say to both the government and opposition. If the leaders of the house and opposition failed on a consensus candidate as prime minister and chief minister, the matter was to be sent to bipartisan parliamentary committees. If they couldn’t decide, the matter was to be sent to the ECP along with shortlisted names sent in from both sides.
This time around, the ECP’s decision that has been called into question is regarding the chief minister of the largest province. A Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf nominee, Hasan Askari Rizvi’s appointment was not approved by the ruling party Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, and therefore allegations of pre-poll rigging began to be heard right ahead of the elections.
But that is not the only reason why the caretakers’ role is under scrutiny. Many tend to think the interim government is responsible for the hundreds of postings and transfers of civil servants and other government officials. But again, under the constitutional scheme, the caretakers cannot possibly do this without the approval of the ECP. For example, at the outset, when the caretaker prime minister decided to change his principal secretary, he could only do it with the permission of the ECP.
However, what the government is squarely responsible for is maintenance of law and order. As such, all the arrests of PML-N workers and leaders, and management of rallies on July 13, the day former prime minister Nawaz Sharif was supposed to return to the country, was the responsibility of the government. And it came under fire for ‘mishandling’ it.
It is also being held responsible for not pre-empting the terrorist attacks on political rallies and workers. The truth is that whatever little duties it is supposed to perform, these terrorist attacks do fall under its purview. Again, the way the caretaker government has handled especially the aftermath of these terrorist attacks is neither mature nor professional.
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It would be safe to conclude that the idea of a caretaker government is essentially flawed. It is wrong to get ordinary people to run the government for a couple of months and then expect them to do it perfectly well. This is not possible under any circumstances. It becomes doubly flawed when it gets mixed up with an accountability process already at work that is not deemed credible by the political players and carries the burden of political victimisation.
The caretaker governments in 2018 operate in an environment where the accountability apparatus, NAB, is thought to be used by certain elements to effect particular outcomes. Unfortunately, the perception is that the ECP and caretaker governments are only aiding these elements in this period. Not the best way to hold elections by any standards.