The genesis

March 19, 2023

How the idea of caretaker governments became integral to elections in Pakistan

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n some parliamentary democracies, the incumbent government – either on completion of its designated term or on losing the confidence of the legislature – operates in a ‘caretaker’ capacity until a new government is sworn in. Some others appoint a neutral, unelected caretaker cabinet to ensure free and fair elections and smooth transfer of power. Pakistan, which despite having had presidential systems under various military regimes has been a parliamentary democracy for most of its history, falls in the second category. Unfortunately, its caretaker arrangements have failed to deliver the service they are tasked to do. They are alleged to have influenced outcomes of elections and subsequent formation of governments.

The allegedly fraudulent election processes have been retarding, if not derailing, the democratic process. The country has therefore been making changes in the election processes and incorporating new constitutional provisions to improve the caretaker arrangements and to strengthen the democratic system. It has also taken some other steps like 1) making the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) more empowered and independent; 2) inviting independent foreign observers to monitor the transparency of elections; and 3) computerising the electoral system. All these measures have been taken to ensure the neutrality of the caretaker governments since most of the electoral malpractices are attributed to partiality of the government under which the elections are held.

But where exactly did the idea of a caretaker government come from?

Before answering that, let us define a caretaker setup. A government which normally takes care of state administration for an interim period – from the day of outgoing regular government till the formation of new regular government – is called a caretaker government. The temporary cabinet performs day to day administrative jobs, maintains a neutral status and assists the election commission in holding free and fair elections. A caretaker cabinet cannot take major policy decision that may affect its neutrality and preempt the exercise of authority by the future elected government, make promotions/ appointments/ transfers of public officials without the approval of the election commission.

The idea of caretaker arrangements has been adopted by several mature democracies including Australia, New Zealand and Canada. However, the experiment in Bangladesh, a relatively nascent democracy, did not fare well and the provision for caretaker government was abolished in 2011, 15 years after it was instituted.

Interestingly, neither Pakistan’s current constitution nor the previous ones originally had a stipulation for a caretaker setup. The provision was first introduced through Article 48(5)(b) by Gen Zia-ul Haq (the then president) on March 2, 1985. It states that when the president dissolves the National Assembly, he shall, in his discretion, appoint a caretaker cabinet. This clause was added because the president, after the Eighth Amendment in 1985, was empowered to dissolve the National Assembly. Before this, there were only two ways the National Assembly could be dissolved: one, after the Assembly completed its five-year term; and two, if the prime minister advised the president to dissolve it.

Article 94 reads: “The president may ask the prime minister to continue to hold office until his successor enters upon the office of prime minister”. When Zulfikar Ali Bhutto advised the president to dissolve the National Assembly to hold fresh elections, he continued to hold the office of prime minister. This was one of the reasons for his eventual ouster since his government was alleged to have engaged in massive rigging.

However, under the constitutional arrangements made in 1985, Gen Zia-ul Haq dismissed the government of Muhammad Khan Junejo on May 29, 1988. When he installed the first caretaker cabinet it had no prime minister. The appointment of this cabinet was later challenged. In its ruling, the Supreme Court held that the office of prime minister could not be kept vacant.

However, the eight caretaker governments appointed so far have all been accused of partiality. Dr Ejaz Hussain, a political scientist based in the Lahore School of Economics, holds that “an interim government not only influences the conduct and outcome of an election, but also the formation of the new government.”

This is evident from the fact that almost all mainstream political parties have alleged that the general elections of 2013 and 2018 were rigged. The caretaker setups and the ECP, they said, had failed to hold free and fair elections. Najam Sethi, the caretaker chief minister of the Punjab in 2013, was accused by the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf of having done the same. The PTI has also opposed the appointment of Mohsin Naqvi as caretaker chief minister of the Punjab.

The performance of caretaker governments raises the question whether we really need an unelected caretaker setup for free and fair elections. The answer is no. Instead, Pakistan should follow the Indian example where the government at the time of dissolution of the Lok Sabha (House of the People) usually continues until the election process is completed and a new government is sworn in. Article 75 of the Indian constitution permits the ministers, including the prime minister, to continue for six months without being members of either house. The president can, therefore, constitute a council of ministers, other than legislators, for a short period to hold the general elections.

Instead of having caretaker arrangements, India has gone for an empowered and independent election commission, with additional powers of oversight and accountability to ensure free and fair elections.

Instead of caretaker governments, Pakistan should make rapid, radical and extensive reforms to ensure an empowered and independent election commission, with additional powers of oversight and accountability. This, in turn, would: 1) ensure free and fair elections; 2) provide legitimacy to the newly formed government; and 3) prevent an extension for a government of technocrats or unelected persons (as in the case of Bangladesh where the technocrats remained in power for almost two years between 2006 and 2008).

The writer has a PhD in history from Shanghai University. He is a lecturer at GCU, Faisalabad, and a research fellow at PIDE, Islamabad. He can be reached at He tweets at MazharGondal87

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