Caretaker Prime Minister (PM) Anwaarul Haq Kakar’s recent interview with The Associated Press has created quite a controversy – and rightly so. The caretaker PM has claimed that fair elections can take place even if PTI Chairman Imran Khan or hundreds of members of his party remain jailed. By way of a weak explanation, PM Kakar offered that the thousands of people in the PTI who didn’t engage in unlawful activities, “will be running the political process" and “participating in the elections” and clarified that nobody is being pursued because of “personal vendetta” but that the law will take its course for anyone, “be it Imran Khan or any other politician who violates [the laws of Pakistan] … We cannot equate that with … political discrimination”. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) has – again, justifiably – taken strong exception to PM Kakar’s statement and said that given that the courts have yet to establish guilt in all such cases, Kakar’s claims are “anti-democratic and ill-judged”. The HRCP has also reminded that it is not for Kakar or his caretaker government to “decide unilaterally what constitutes a ‘fair’ election”.
Political commentators have pointed out that PM Kakar’s comments are unwarranted because a caretaker setup’s mandate is very limited and it certainly does not include proclaiming that any individual or set of individuals can be kept out of elections. Calling such elections ‘fair’ would need a suspension of disbelief that does not exist in the country any longer – although one can safely say the tag ‘free and fair’ can hardly be applied to many election processes in the country. Any election that becomes controversial due to pre-poll rigging, rigging on the day or post-poll rigging is unacceptable for a democratic country. In recent history, the 2018 general elections were mired in controversy because of the way that the state had dealt with Nawaz Sharif to facilitate Project Imran. The tables have turned now – as they always have through our history. If something was not good in 2018, it can hardly be good in 2023. Regardless of who comes to power on the back of a controversial election, it will not be smooth sailing for them. And that too in a country that is hardly promising smooth sailing for even a party that comes to power with a free and fair heavy mandate. What we need right now is not more disputes but conflict resolution, and timely and fair elections can offer that to an extent. Unfortunately, it seems these elections will lead to further chaos if any party is ‘kept out’ of the electoral process through one excuse or another. Elections can only be free and fair and transparent if all political parties are allowed to take part with full freedom. This ought to be worrying for all political parties across the board, which is why Chairman PPP Bilawal Bhutto has also talked about the concept of ‘level-playing field’ for one party and criticized it.
What the country needs right now is healing in many ways, especially when it comes to the alarming levels of political polarization. This cannot happen without free and fair elections. The first step would be for the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) to announce an exact date of elections. The second step would be for the ECP to ensure that no party is treated above board and no party sees any discrimination. The caretaker setup would also do well to remember that they need to oversee the transition period and not become part of the problem themselves.