Caretakers will always fail in Pakistan

Pakistan is the only country running on the Westminster model where on the completion of a term, the constitution requires induction of a new caretaker government

In February 2012, then President Asif Ali Zardari signed the 20th amendment into the constitution, which provided for the installation of independent caretaker governments in the centre and provinces at the end of the term of national and provincial assemblies. The caretakers would mainly be responsible to hold the elections for new assemblies and run the routine affairs of government in the interim. At the passage of this amendment, many others hailed it as a cornerstone of free and fair elections in the country, which would also strengthen Pakistani democracy.

Usually in countries run on the Westminster model of parliamentary government, at the end of a parliamentary term the incumbent government simply switches into ‘caretaker’ mode while related institutions such as election commissions perform their role independently. In Pakistan, even before the 20th Amendment, the constitution provided for caretaker governments, however, it was exclusively the president who appointed them.

The amendment not only stripped the president of these powers, it provided for a committee of parliamentarians to decide on the caretakers in case the prime minister or chief minister and their opposition leaders failed to agree on the caretaker setup in the stipulated period. And even if the committee could not agree on caretakers within the stipulated time, the Chief Election Commissioner had the power to decide on the names under consideration.

No doubt, the current constitutional provisions for caretaker governments looks promising, but only on paper. Pakistan is perhaps the only country running on the Westminster model of parliamentary government where at the completion of the five years term, the constitution requires induction of an altogether new and independent caretaker government. Moreover, it provided the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) with the power to take over the parliamentary committees responsibility should it fail in performing its duty. Interestingly, the very first national caretaker government in 2013 after this amendment had to be named by the ECP as PPP and PML-N, the two largest parties in the national assembly, and their committees failed to agree on who to appoint as the caretaker prime minister.

The dilemma is that keeping in view the institutional imbalance in Pakistan, a weak caretaker government stands no chance to deal with the machinations of the deep state

Despite having installed a so called neutral caretaker government through a seemingly reassuring process, when the elections were held in 2013, some parties — including the PPP, ANP and MQM — cried foul over the inability of caretakers and the independent Election Commission to effectively run the government and state institutions, especially military and security intelligence agencies, so that all parties could have had a level playing field. After the elections, PPP — which had lost quite badly — alleged that the Returning Officers engineered the polling. In fact, PTI, having failed to turn its popularity into desired number of assembly seats, took to the streets and held sit-ins which prevented the PMLN government from running its affairs for most of 2014.

This year in May when the last assembly completed its term, again the episode of naming the caretakers proved to be too complex a task for Pakistani politicians. While the name of caretaker prime minister was agreed upon at the last minute, caretaker governments in three of the four provinces had to be decided on by ECP as political leaders failed to reach a consensus in this department.

Yet, within four weeks, the current caretaker regimes in the centre and provinces have exposed their inability and almost outright disinterest to undertake measures to ensure that the elections are free and fair. While on the one hand the ‘front’ organizations of known sectarian militants have been given the freedom to run their campaigns, mainstream political parties such as PPP and PML-N have been denied political space and coverage on media in favour of PTI. The caretaker governments seemingly also have no power or interest in reigning in the alleged role of military intelligence agencies in pre-poll rigging that the national and international media have frequently reported.

The dilemma is that keeping in view the institutional imbalance in Pakistan — where the military has an unmatched sway over state affairs against which even popularly elected governments have struggled to keep at least a semblance of civilian supremacy — a weak caretaker government stands no chance to deal with the machinations of the deep state. It would be far more effective to let the incumbent government continue in caretaker mode with limited powers, assisted by an independent and fully resourced ECP.

The writer is a sociologist with an interest in history and politics. He tweets @ZulfiRao

Published in Daily Times, July 19th 2018.