It’s time to do away with Pakistan’s redundant ‘caretaker’ governments
This is election year in Pakistan. The battle-lines are drawn. There is a lot of noise ahead of the political showdown and even by local standards of chaos, polarization hasn’t ever been this bad.
Considering the bruising nature of holding elections in Pakistan – from not accepting results after vote-casting to allegations of rigging even before polls, and from general non-cooperation on rules of the game beyond legal requirements to the issue of awarding party tickets to candidates – the country’s parties evolved a system of “political pause” that is a unique electoral-governance playbook.
Pakistan is about the only country with a system of short-term “caretaker” administrations between full-term outgoing and incoming governments. But if the purpose is imposing a 90-day political and administrative neutrality to minimize administrative influence over the electoral process and to enhance the legitimacy of electoral results, then this model is known more for its failures than stakeholder satisfaction.
The results of all general elections in Pakistan have been vigorously disputed by the losing side, often bitterly to the extent that the opposition immediately launches a countrywide campaign to disrupt and dislodge the incoming government.
This is what happened, for instance, in the 2013 election lost by the party of Imran Khan who launched a crippling sit-in in Islamabad for four months whose aftermath still rankles him and others nearly a decade later. Imran built a whole latter-day career out of use of rigging allegations to discredit his opponents without proof upheld by courts. He is not alone. The parties of Nawaz Sharif and Bilawal Bhutto have similarly contested election results and launched their own versions of disruptive protests and legal challenges in the past.
Once elections happen and a new National Assembly is sworn in, it should be a priority to do away with the non-productive legacy of caretaker administrations and enhance the credibility of democracy.
This general experience raises a legitimate question about the efficacy and utility of caretaker administrations. These ‘interim governments’ have not only repeatedly failed to make political parties fans of their mandated neutrality but also failed to inject trust among political foes that should legitimize “caretaking” in the first place.
This is on ample display right now. As opposition leader, Imran Khan has now successfully delivered on his threat of dissolving the provincial legislatures and his party’s governments in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to force premature elections that have put the unpopular ruling coalition in a bind on dealing with its fallout.
The price to pay for this tactical success for Khan, however, is agreeing on caretaker administrations in the provinces, a price that – true to the Pakistani political script – is defeating its own purpose by generating more bitter dispute over whose nominee will be “caretaker” in the crucial electoral battlefield of Punjab, that of the opposition or the ruling coalition’s.
As it turns out, there was no agreement and a decision was, under the law, taken by the Election Commission of Pakistan, which chose a nominee not proposed by the opposition. The result: Khan’s party is protesting the act and converting the political battle into a legal one. The unexpected consensus on Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is the exception that proves the rule.
This will not end here. Imran, who like any leader in the opposition, fears adverse political outcomes, will not accept a caretaker prime minister when elections become due in a few months, because his party resigned en masse from the National Assembly, and he no longer will have a say in even nominating “caretaker” candidates. And because he has already been in a bruising battle against the Election Commission over other cases, he will surely not accept results of elections notified by it eventually if they go even slightly against his expectations.
All this makes the whole system of “caretakers” serving as interim governance structures in Pakistan now redundant and should be done away with. Bangladesh used to follow this system but did away with it for its consistent non-delivery and high economic cost.
There are sensible ways of weaving the purpose and mandate of interim administrations into permanent governance structures by restricting political prerogatives of the outgoing government. The Election Commission can be made more autonomous and legally empowered, as it is in India, to enforce a wide-ranging code of conduct that ensures free and fair elections.
In all parts of the world where democracy is a systemic practice, this happens without much trouble, and surely it can work in Pakistan too. This will require a constitutional amendment premised on legal reforms and underwritten by a major degree of political consensus within parliament. It can’t be done right now but once elections happen and a new National Assembly is sworn in, it should be a priority to do away with the non-productive legacy of caretaker administrations and thereby enhance the credibility of democracy a little bit.
- Adnan Rehmat is a Pakistan-based journalist, researcher and analyst with interests in politics, media, development and science.