THE framers of the original 1973 Constitution had apparently visualised Pakistan as a normal democratic state, and therefore, did not include any provision for a caretaker government during elections. Even the part-real and part-perceived rigging in the 1977 general election did not justify the institution of a system of caretaker governments.
But the martial law government led by Gen Ziaul Haq, in its typical non-political and over-simplistic way of ‘solving’ political problems, injected the system of caretaker governments into Pakistan’s Constitution in 1985 through the Revival of Constitutional Order (RCO).
The first caretaker government under this provision was selected by the military ruler Zia in 1988 in his discretion after he prematurely dissolved the National Assembly and dismissed the elected governments.
Apparently incensed by the act of defiance by his handpicked prime minister, Muhammad Khan Junejo, Zia appointed only ministers directly reporting to him, without a caretaker PM. Since Zia himself was a party against Junejo and the PPP, whom he had deposed in 1977, the caretaker government led by Zia, and after his death, by Ghulam Ishaq Khan, was heavily partisan.
Since then, Pakistan has seen seven caretaker prime ministers, out of which only three — Moeen Qureshi in 1993, Mir Hazar Khan Khoso in 2013 and Justice Nasirul Mulk in 2018 — may be considered neutral while others had explicit political leanings and did not contribute at all towards making the elections free and fair.
The Charter of Democracy signed by PPP leader Benazir Bhutto and PML-N head Nawaz Sharif in 2006 endorsed the system of caretaker governments but Section 31 of the Charter explicitly called for a ‘neutral’ caretaker government, a phrase conspicuous by its absence in the constitutional provisions even after the 18th and 20th Amendments extensively overhauled the constitutional scheme of caretaker governments.
The caretaker government system in Pakistan is being viewed with increased scepticism.
The caretaker government system in Pakistan is being viewed with increased scepticism since the 90-day mandate of the caretaker governments in the Punjab and KP was exceeded in April this year. The two governments not only continue to function but also, contrary to the provisions of Section 230 of the Elections Act, 2017, take long-term policy decisions.
The public trust in the caretaker governments was further undermined when the political parties opposed to Imran Khan publicly confessed that their nominated representatives were included in the caretaker government of KP under an agreed quota system.
The partisanship of the KP caretaker government can also be gauged by the fact that one of the caretaker ministers addressed a political party’s public meeting recently and the Election Commission had to order his dismissal.
Two other extraordinary developments in the context of caretaker governments system in Pakistan took place recently, which further made future caretaker governments controversial even before being constituted.
The recent amendment in Section 230 of the Elections Act, 2017, which enhanced the powers of the appointed and unelected caretaker government runs counter to the preamble of the Constitution which states that “… the state shall exercise its powers and authority through the chosen representatives of the people”.
The second development related to proposing the name of Senator Ishaq Dar, the current finance minister, a senior leader of the PML-N and a close relative of Nawaz Sharif, as caretaker prime minister.
Although it was an unofficial proposal as formal proceedings will not commence until the National Assembly is dissolved, it was a sufficiently serious manoeuvre to invite emphatic public opposition from Raja Riaz, Leader of the Opposition in the National Assembly, and Minister Khawaja Asif and another senior PML-N leader.
Senator Dar may be amply qualified to become prime minister because of his competence and long experience but his partisanship and close association with one political party make him absolutely unsuitable as a caretaker PM.
There have been widespread speculations after these two developments that probably the next caretaker government may continue for a period longer than 90 days, which also means that elections may be deferred.
These speculations remind one of Bangladesh’s experiences of caretaker governments from 1996 to 2011 which, although begun as a constitutional arrangement, morphed into an extra-constitutional military-backed technocratic government which lasted for about two years and could exit only after considerable international pressure forced them to hold elections in December 2008 and hand over power to the elected government.
The Bangladesh parliament, chastened by the experience of a prolonged caretaker set-up, and encouraged by the ruling of the country’s supreme court declaring the caretaker system to be unconstitutional, finally wound up the caretaker system in 2011 through the 15th constitutional amendment passed by the 345-member legislature with an overwhelming majority of 291 to one, in a vote boycotted by BNP, the main opposition party.
Prime Minister Hasina Wajid told parliament after the vote: “This is a historic moment for democracy. We can’t allow unelected people to oversee national elections.”
Pakistan is faced with two choices when the next National Assembly is elected. The first option is that it can reform the system to make sure that the caretaker system is strictly neutral. This choice, however, seems to be more utopian than realistic.
The second option, probably a more practical one, is to wind up the prevailing flawed caretaker system because a majority of caretaker set-ups established in the past 35 years were neither neutral nor could their presence guarantee free and fair election in most of the cases.
In addition, there has been the intrusion of political parties in various caretaker governments, which were supposed to be neutral and this trend seems to be on the increase.
Probably, Pakistan can take a cue from its erstwhile eastern wing and review its experience of caretaker governments. We can also learn from the Indian experience where the elected government continues during the election but with drastically reduced powers under the strict watch of their election commission.
Published in Dawn, July 29th, 2023