Caretaker budgets

Published June 23, 2023

THERE is a first time for everything. So goes the old adage. It should not be surprising then that Pakistan’s political economy is experiencing something new. The assemblies of Punjab and KP were dissolved prematurely. But elections to the provincial legislatures were not held within the constitutionally mandated period of 90 days. This delay continues. The tenure of the caretaker governments was ‘extended’ without any change in the Constitution. The current budget session has further complicated the situation. Now that the caretakers have announced their respective spending plans for the first four months of FY24 in the run-up to the anticipated general elections, a new debate has ensued on whether they have overstepped their financial mandate.

Our poll laws confine caretaker governments to day-to-day functions and to assist the ECP in holding elections. They are not empowered to take major policy decisions like new taxation or enter into major contracts. This is in line with Article 126 of the Constitution that allows provincial caretaker set-ups to only ‘authorise’ expenditure for a period not exceeding four months, thus curtailing any attempt to take major financial decisions. That raises questions over some measures announced by the two caretaker governments. Can caretaker set-ups increase the pay and pensions of their employees since it involves a significant financial burden on the provincial exchequers as seen in KP’s case? After all, this is not in the purview of routine activities and the provinces don’t have to follow federal dictates on such matters. Can Punjab remove taxes on the IT sector, no matter how beneficial the action may be for IT-based business? Or should its caretakers set up an endowment for journalists? As mentioned, this is a new situation and there are no easy answers. But the caretakers must try to restrict themselves to the boundaries set for them by the Constitution and election laws to protect a fragile democracy.

Published in Dawn, June 23rd, 2023

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