Tuesday July 23, 2024

Govt wins over allies, confers more powers on caretaker setup

Caretakers are not empowered to make new accords, authorised only to decide on existing bilateral, multilateral pacts

By Muhammad Anis & Muhammad Saleh Zaafir  
July 27, 2023
Govt wins over allies, confers more powers on caretaker setup

ISLAMABAD: A joint session of parliament Wednesday okayed a crucial but controversial provision contained in the Elections (Amendment) Bill, 2023, giving powers to the caretaker government to take decisions and actions regarding existing bilateral agreements, along with a set of 53 other amendments to the Elections (Amendment) Act, 2017.

The bill tabled in the joint session by Parliamentary Affairs Minister Murtaza Javed Abbasi was approved with a majority voice vote. The house was assured before the passage of the bill that under the amendments, the interim setup would not have the authority to sign any new agreements and make decisions on bilateral and multilateral agreements. The subclauses 1 and 2 of Section 230 of the Election Act related to the functioning of the caretaker government have been amended. The caretaker government would be able to exercise powers on matters related to the ongoing projects, according to the amendments.

Law Minister Azam Nazir Tarar told the joint session that the parliamentary committee on electoral reforms again held a meeting on Wednesday and examined, specifically, Section 230 of the Election Act vis-à-vis the caretaker government. He said the objective of empowering the caretaker setup was to ensure that the ongoing commitments, multilateral and bilateral, did not face hiatus as it could negatively affect the economy.

The bill also empowers the caretaker government to take actions or decisions regarding existing bilateral or multilateral agreements or projects, already initiated under the Public Private Partnership Authority Act, 2017, the Inter-Governmental Commercial Transactions Act 2022 and the Privatisation Commission Ordinance 2000.

The law minister said that no new powers were being given to the caretaker government, saying amendments to Section 230 were aimed to ensure that the decisions already taken by the federal cabinet did not face any hurdles. The bill also envisaged measures aimed at ensuring timely compilation and announcement of election results.

Tarar said the parliamentary committee met with Sardar Ayaz Sadiq in the chair and it was decided with consensus to delete two insertions in Sections 1 and 2, which could empower the caretakers to transfer officials before the announcement of the election schedule and perform functions to attend day-to-day matters (and urgent matters). He said that except for the amendment to Section 230, no member had any other objection to other amendments. He, however, admitted that the controversial amendments were not discussed at the committee meeting, but were posted on the WhatsApp group of the committee.

Minister for Economic Affairs Sardar Ayaz Sadiq said that incidentally the World Bank representative met him and he was also concerned as to who would sign an agreement with the Bank from Pakistan during the caretaker setup. “I can provide you the evidence on my mobile that they have concerns and want that commitments and agreements with them to be fulfilled,” he said. He said that there were no plans to extend the tenure of the caretaker government for a longer period.

The subsection 2, which would not apply while implementing sub-section 2A, says, “The caretaker government shall not take major policy decisions except on urgent matters; shall not take any decision or make a policy that may have an effect or pre-empt the exercise of authority by the future elected Government; shall not enter into major contract or undertaking if it is detrimental to the public interest; shall not enter into major international negotiation with any foreign country or international agency or sign or ratify any international binding instrument except in an exceptional case; shall not make promotions or major appointments of public officials but may make acting or short term appointments in the public interest; shall not transfer public officials unless it is considered expedient and after approval of the Commission and shall not attempt to influence the elections or do or cause to be done anything which may, in any manner, influence or adversely affect the free and fair elections.”

The sub section 1 of section 230 says “The caretaker government shall perform its functions to attend to day-to-day matters which are necessary to run the affairs of the government; assist the commission to hold elections in accordance with law; restrict itself to activities that are of routine, non-controversial and urgent, in the public interest and reversible by the future government elected after the elections; and shall be impartial to every person and political party.”

The new provision, 2A in Section 230, provides that restrictions of attending to only day-to-day affairs, not taking major policy decisions, confining itself to routine matters and not entering into international negotiations would not apply to the caretakers, while taking actions or directions regarding existing bilateral and multilateral agreements.

The House passed the controversial provision, which was moved with slight alteration with a majority voice vote amid opposition from parliamentarians mainly from the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), Grand Democratic Alliance (GDA) and Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), who opposed the same in their speeches.

Parliamentarians from JI and Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf opposed the legislation while Senator Raza Rabbani of PPP and Tahir Bazinjo of the National Party spoke against the controversial amendment.

Raza Rabbani questioned how decisions under the Public-Private Authority Act, 2017, Inter-Government Transaction Act 2022 and Privatization Commission Ordinance, 2000, particularly privatisation of national assets and institutions, could be termed day-to-day affairs, to be run by caretaker setup, having tenure from 60 to 90 days, saying that he also opposed the same diluted amendment in this regard.

He regretted that after signing the agreement with Pakistan, it were the IMF representatives who met leaders of political parties to ask them whether they agreed with the document. Rabbani maintained that the powers of an elected government could not be equated with the powers of a caretaker regime, which was to carry out the day-to-day affairs of the country. “How can you give powers of an elected prime minister, who is elected under by the National Assembly under Article, to a prime minister who is appointed by the President under Article 224 of the Constitution,” he said.

Referring to the Khawaja Asif case, Senator Ali Zafar of PTI said the caretaker government was meant to confine itself to day-to-day and routine matters and could not take decisions which could not be reversed by the elected government. He said that Khawaja Asif himself went to the Supreme Court with a plea that the job of caretakers was not to make postings and transfers and the same was accepted.

Referring to the verdict in the Khawaja Tariq Raheem case, he said the caretakers could not take decisions and substantive measures having far-reaching effects. Then he said the apex court had ruled that object of the caretaker government was to fill the void. “How caretakers can take major decisions when there is no Parliament and when there is no Parliament, there is no oversight,” he said. He said that it would be such a controversial and unconstitutional law that the Supreme Court would reject it in 10 days if the Parliament goes ahead with it. “The role of caretakers is to maintain the status quo, hold elections and hand over power to the newly elected government,” he said.

Senator Mohsin Aziz of PTI, during the proceedings, pointed out a lack of quorum, but the House was found in order. “This is against the spirit of the Constitution and the spirit of the caretaker government and gives a clear message that it has been included in the bill on the desire of international institutions,” Senator Mushtaq Ahmad Khan said while opposing the insertion just before it was put for passage.

The new wording of the provision as Sub Section 2A has become more dangerous and it is a ‘soft coup’ to make coming elections controversial. “Democracy is in trouble and therefore, the amendment should be withdrawn,” he said.

Tahir Bazinjo of the National Party also opposed the controversial amendment, saying that caretakers are meant to attend day-to-day affairs and are installed for stop-gap arrangements. According to an amendment in Section 148 of the Elections Act, 2017, the Election Tribunal shall decide on an election petition within 180 days instead of 120 days of its filing. Another amendment in Section 155 says that an appeal against the decision of the Election Tribunal will be decided by the High Court or Supreme Court within 180 days of its filing. The injunction order if passed will be vacated if the appeal is not decided within 180 days.

According to other amendments, the allowed expenses for a candidate on an election campaign for the National Assembly seat have been increased from Rs4 million to Rs10 million while expenses allowed to a candidate for a provincial assembly seat have been enhanced from Rs2 million to Rs4 million.

Another amendment says the difference in the number of voters in the constituencies will not be more than 5pc and the complaints against demarcations can be made within 30 days. Later, the proceedings of the joint session were adjourned till Aug 7.

The National Assembly has transmitted “Elections (Amendment) Bill, 2023 for submission to the President for his non-mandatory assent. The same is being consigned to the President with the advice of the Prime Minister.