Legacy of the caretakers

Published March 3, 2024
The writer is a security analyst
The writer is a security analyst

THE formation of the new governments at the centre and in the provinces has arguably been completed under strict cyber surveillance, coupled with the silencing of dissenting voices. The political landscape is still in a state of flux, with uncertainty and dissatisfaction regarding the election results. The hope is that this will somehow help cultivate long-awaited stability in the country, which is essential for economic recovery. It is still being determined what wonders the PML-N-led coalition government can perform that the country’s longest-serving caretaker set-up did not attempt.

The caretaker government was an ‘extension’ of the Pakistan Democratic Movement coalition government, as the establishment deployed it to ensure the continuity of reforms under the Special Investment Facilitation Council (SIFC) and fulfil its restructuring commitments with the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The last PDM government had ensured through its cabinet decision that the caretaker government would continue pursuing the agenda it had crafted with the help of the establishment.

The carefully chosen caretakers, who enjoyed the unwavering support of institutions, beyond the reach of any elected government, may have set a precedent that the new coalition government will struggle to match. As chief of army staff, Gen Asim Munir had indicated the future government may not have unfettered control in running the state. He had outlined the future political trajectory and foreign policy while addressing students from various universities just weeks before the general elections, emphasising, according to reports, that a five-year term does not grant a licence to misgovern, and urging the youth to elect representatives cautiously, free from monetary or propaganda influence, including social media.

However, the caretakers themselves ruled with an iron fist, making critical policy decisions with no regard for their constitutional limits. Whether the caretakers achieved their desired stability remains in question. In a social media thread, senior journalist Benazir Shah recalled the unconstitutional and extra-legal measures taken by the federal and Punjab caretakers, arguing they strengthened the hybrid system at democracy’s expense. Conscientious political leaders and opinion-makers raised similar concerns, but their observations were conveniently ignored by their own parties, likely due to their thirst for power. Notably, the caretakers failed to fulfil their core mandate of assisting the Election Commission of Pakistan in ensuring free and fair elections.

The caretakers made critical policy decisions with no regard for their constitutional limits.

All the administrative or policy decisions the caretakers have taken can be reversed, but their major offence was providing full support to the establishment in tightening its control and adopting a more hard-line approach to dealing with dissent in the country, whether from political, nationalist parties, civil society, or the media. YouTuber Asad Ali Toor was the latest victim of this approach. The caretakers strengthened the notion of impunity for the security agencies and crafted arguments in their support.

Slightly different from past caretaker set-ups, the last caretakers came from a background of juggling opinions and provided full support in strengthening the establishment’s doctrine of zero tolerance. This approach was not only exhibited in the political domain but also in dealing with the issues of Afghan refugees and Baloch missing persons. They were seen to help the establishment craft arguments to eliminate mediating forces between the state and insurgents or hard-line nationalists. They vocally argued that nationalist political actors facilitated the insurgents, and their attitude heavily impacted the Baloch and Pakhtun nationalist parties, who are still protesting against alleged election rigging. The underlying approach was to recognise the perceived enemy and deal with them with full force.

This approach prevented state institutions from negotiating with Dr Mahrang Baloch, who led the missing persons protest sit-in in Islamabad. This was a missed opportunity for the state to open a door for reconciliation and begin healing the wounds of the Baloch people. It is expected that state institutions will continue their so-called ‘zero tolerance’ approach with the help of their cronies, leaving no room for the reconciliation necessary for meaningful engagement with nationalists and civil society.

The problem with the ‘zero-tolerance doctrine’, also referred to as the ‘doctrine of strength’, is that while it may silence opposition, it cannot offer long-lasting solutions to problems such as the insurgency in Balochistan, the banned Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan and its terrorist affiliates, and the lack of social and political cohesion between the country’s power centres and peripheries. A nation’s internal strength does not rely on suppression but on a strong social contract built by including all stakeholders.

Additionally, the ‘doctrine of strength’ is ineffective in addressing external affairs and economic recovery, which require flexibility and adaptation to ground realities. This was evident during the caretaker government’s tenure, where they demonstrated considerable flexibility in securing deals with the IMF and loan rollovers from China and the Gulf countries.

Though the caretakers are leaving behind multiple challenges for the new government, it remains to be seen how much confidence the establishment will bestow upon the new government to silence its critics. Internal cohesion, civil liberties, a free media, and democracy would not be the new government’s priority, and it will leave it to the establishment to deal with it in its own way. Securing deals with the IMF and economic recovery will be the new prime minister’s priority. Inflation and interest rates have reached their peak, leaving the new government with little choice but to accept a new IMF programme on harsh terms.

Furthermore, the new government will need more space to develop its own economic policies, as the SIFC is arguably dominating the finance ministry, and influencing other critical departments. This effectively ensures that any government, regardless of its strength, will be forced to accept all of IMF’s initial conditions. The risk of not allowing parliament and the new government to formulate their economic reform agenda lies in potential friction among coalition partners and the triggering of civil-military tensions.

One possible solution for the new government would be to follow the governance model established by the caretakers. This would involve visiting campuses and offering explanations and justifications for the state institutions’ positions on various issues, ranging from defence to the economy.

The writer is a security analyst.

Published in Dawn, March 3rd, 2024

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