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Rethinking transition

Updated August 20, 2018

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WITH Imran Khan taking oath as prime minister and the provincial assemblies electing their respective chief ministers, Pakistan has completed its second consecutive democratic transfer of power.

This was an important milestone in the country’s march towards the status of a fully functional democracy. Yet the achievement has offered little to celebrate and more to reflect on.

For instance, there was no conceding speech on election night by the losing party which in most democracies precedes the victory speech. It is crucial for an election to be credible so that all parties wholeheartedly accept its returns. Instead, we had a late polling night press conference by the PML-N that made allegations of rigging and election manipulation. All political parties, except the PTI, have stories to tell about how their mandate was stolen and how they have only conditionally accepted the results in the larger interest of democratic continuity. All of this cannot be brushed aside as a bad habit of losing parties.

Caretakers are an aberration as they were not part of the original 1973 Constitution.

The opposition’s stance means that it has retained the political grounds to challenge the legitimacy of the mandate of the new government. A white paper may be in the offing and a protest campaign can be organised if and when needed. The ingredients for an all-too-familiar cycle of political instability are there. So have we landed any closer to a democratic Pakistan?

Our constitutional scheme employs two instruments to effect the democratic transition: elections through an independent and powerful Election Commission, and the caretaker setup to play the part of a nonpartisan government during election time. While the ECP’s primary focus must be on the quality of the electoral process, the caretakers are supposed to attend to factors that contribute, directly or indirectly, to creating an enabling environment and a level playing field. It is the combination of the two that is supposed to make the transition smooth and noncontroversial.

An election cycle is divided into the pre-poll, polling day and post-poll phases and all three are organically linked. An improvement in one can positively reflect on the other, while problems with one can have a disastrous impact on the others. An election thus has to be assessed in totality. In this sense, evaluating the general elections of 2018 would include analysing the roles of both the ECP and the caretakers in effecting the democratic transition.

The quality of electoral processes in 2018 will definitely be subjected to lengthy debates but these should not exclude a close examination of the system of caretaker governments unique to Pakistan.

To begin with, the caretakers are an aberration as they were not part of the original 1973 Constitution. The setups were introduced by Gen Zia as part of a package, the main instrument of which was the infamous Article 58 (2)(b) that gave the president discretionary powers to dismiss an elected government, dissolve the houses and instal an interim government consisting of handpicked individuals until the next election.

When the 2008 parliament decided to do away with such distortions, the caretaker system was not abolished — simply because political parties do not trust each other on the issue of neutrality during elections. The new amendments delinked the caretakers from the presidency and instead empowered parliament to select them through a consultative process that gives equal weight to the treasury and the opposition. The changes extended parliamentary legitimacy to the system but remained vague about the caretakers’ mandate.

Political parties are apprehensive of empowering the caretakers, and for good reason. The caretakers in the 1990s had provided the establishment a window for intervening in important policy matters. The fear that the establishment can get the tenure of a caretaker government extended through the higher courts is also not unfounded. The talk of a so-called Bangladesh model to ‘clear the mess’ created by the politicians starts before every election. This is a reference to the caretaker system that the main parties in Bangladesh adopted in 1990, and not unsurprisingly they too have zero-level trust in each other.

The experiment went wrong in 2006 when the military used this weak structure to take over power for two years. But, at the end, it failed and had to hand back power to an elected government in 2009 without having cleared the mess, if not having added to it. The newly elected government then abolished the caretaker system but failed to win the trust of the other main party which boycotted the 2014 elections. Bangladesh is scheduled to have second elections without a caretaker in place in December, but a transition acceptable to all players is nowhere in sight.

In Pakistan, confusion about the powers of caretakers was cleared in Elections Act 2017 which made the current caretakers completely toothless. This may have allayed our fear of the establishment employing them to further its own interests but in the process we have actually reduced them to mere showpieces. The main criteria for their selection is that they shall not be partisan, and this is a big ask. Parties do identify well-meaning, unbiased people for the job but most of them have no experience of governance. How can we expect them to be of any use to the ECP in making elections free and fair and ensuring a level playing field?

Discarding the caretaker system, we should either put the entire burden of responsibility on the ECP or work out a support structure strong enough to withstand pressure from forces looking to distort the democratic discourse.

In our constitutional scheme, the Senate is a permanent body as it is never dissolved. It is also more representative of the federation with all the units having equal representation. Can the Senate be given a role during the period when the other houses stand dissolved? A government by or under the Senate would be legitimate and would have direct stakes in the democratic transition. It would also be in a more powerful position to deliver than a dummy caretaker structure of part-time individuals.

Democratic transitions are challenging across the developing world — from Kenya and Zimbabwe to Bangladesh and Pakistan. The mistrust among competing parties is the main hurdle in making it a smooth process; this mistrust is not unfounded and cannot be overlooked. Parliament needs to continuously employ its creative faculties to work out better solutions.

The writer is an independent researcher with an interest in elections and governance.

Published in Dawn, August 20th, 2018