There is a clear sign of the collapse of political trust that the state desires and requires from its people
ore than two thousand years ago, Greek philosopher Plato wrote in Republic, “Democracy... is a charming form of government, full of variety and disorder; and dispensing a sort of equality to equals and unequals alike.” On elections, former US president, Lyndon B Johnson said, “the vote is the most powerful instrument ever devised by man for breaking down injustice and destroying the terrible walls, which imprison men because they are different from other men.”
Democracy and elections are deeply interconnected. Elections are a key means by which citizens can exercise their democratic rights and participate in the governance of their country by electing representatives who will make decisions on their behalf. In order for elections to be meaningful, they must be conducted within a democratic framework that ensures basic freedoms, such as the freedom of speech, association and assembly.
In Pakistan, elections are organised through a caretaker setup. Learning from the 1977 elections wherein the process for conducting elections was marred by allegations of bias and favoritism on the part of the ruling government – resulting in the imposition of martial law – Pakistan adopted the provision of a caretaker setup to provide a neutral and impartial framework for the conduct of elections. Under the caretaker setup, a neutral interim government is appointed to oversee the electoral process, including the preparation of voter lists, the appointment of polling staff and the overall management of the election. The interim government is composed of non-political figures and is responsible for ensuring that the election is conducted in a free, fair and transparent manner.
The proponents of the process cite ensuring neutrality, providing continuity of governance during election process, preventing bureaucratic and administrative misconduct, denying abuse of power, and facilitating a peaceful transition of power as some of the reasons to continue the process. However, there is sufficient argument to look into the need of caretaker setups, evaluate proponent claims and their credibility.
The foremost need for a caretaker setup emerges from the fact that the state has failed to create, promote, sustain and strengthen independent state institutions capable of ensuring an inclusive democracy. It is one of the most critical aspects of the failing nature of the state. Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson in their work Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty, argue that the development or underdevelopment of any country depends on the nature of its state institutions: countries with inclusive political and economic institutions are found to be developed whereas those with extractive institutions are underdeveloped. Pakistan can reflect upon its own political and economic conditions in the light of this widely-accepted hypothesis.
With every election since 1990, the institutions of the state, the Election Commission of Pakistan being the most prominent, kept losing their neutral posture, institutional credibility, and effectiveness.
The lack of trust upon the government and its political ambitions to continue governing the country could have been set aside had we created autonomous, powerful and neutral institutions of the state, particularly those responsible to ensure that citizens are freely enfranchised and that their voices are heard. Unfortunately, not a single general election organised by caretaker setups has ever been free from the allegations of bureaucratic misconduct, pre-poll rigging and voter fraud on election day. Since 1990, every losing political party or alliance has alleged that the powers-that-be defied its otherwise guaranteed electoral victory. With every election since 1990, the institutions of the state, the Election Commission of Pakistan being the most prominent, kept losing their neutral posture, institutional credibility, and governing effectiveness. The current phase of cataclysmic political crisis shows the nadir level these institutions have reached. At the moment, no institution of the state is willing to support the ECP to fulfil its constitutional responsibility of organising free and fair elections. Without any constitutional remedy, particularly after the recent unequivocal orders of the Supreme Court to hold elections within 90 days after the dissolution of the Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provincial assemblies, Pakistan is on the edge of losing an already damaged repute of being a democracy. Even if political parties and state institutions reach an accord to hold countrywide general elections in the coming months, the shattering of the inviolability and sanctity of the constitution appears inevitable. How damaging is it going to be in the coming years is yet to be seen. This is a clear sign of the collapse of political trust that the state desires and requires from its people to be posed in its institutions.
The current provincial caretaker setups have become controversial. The opposition is alleging that the caretaker governments in the Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa have designs to facilitate some political parties and deny a level-playing field to others. For the upcoming national elections, caretaker setups may be appointed by the PDM and a friendly opposition, meaning a denial of trust from the Imran Khan-led Pakistan Tehreek-i-Pakistan. The Election Commission of Pakistan has already been accused of partiality. Given the allegations that have already been made, it is hard to see how these institutions and caretaker setups will organise elections that are acknowledged as free and fair.
Pakistan is currently in its worst political crisis of the last five decades. Political instability, economic collapse, institutional ineffectiveness and election uncertainty are eroding public trust. Pakistan is in severe need of institutional overhauling and government structure. The people have endeavored for an inclusive democracy and economy through various social and political movements. It is the political leadership and its myopic material interests that have brought the state and its institutions to their knees.
A credible caretaker setup is needed. Ideally, like in other democratic countries, Pakistan should have created and strengthened state institutions meant to organise free and fair elections and to deter politically-generated embezzlements by holding political leaders and bureaucrats accountable. Mechanisms meant to ensure separation of powers between the legislative, executive and judicial branches of the government should have been in place. The state failed to take on these foundational challenges. Unfortunately, instead of improving, we are witnessing a demise of alternatives such as caretaking mechanisms. In the absence of a political compromise, it is hard to see a path forward.
The writer is a lecturer at the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University, USA. He can be reached at slasharitamu.edu