Can't connect right now! retry

add The News to homescreen

tap to bring up your browser menu and select 'Add to homescreen' to pin the The News web app

Got it!

add The News to homescreen

tap to bring up your browser menu and select 'Add to homescreen' to pin the The News web app

Got it!

Consensus, credibility and the caretaker


June 2, 2018

In a country where the government and the opposition are often at loggerheads even over trite matters, the consensus between the PPP and the PML-N over the caretaker prime minister (PM) is a cause to rejoice. The icing on the cake is that other political parties have also reposed their trust in the nominee. Does this suggest that the politicians have finally come of age?

Let’s not draw the inference hotfoot. On second thought, isn’t the very notion of a caretaker setup an admission of our persisting political immaturity? Across the globe, no mature parliamentary democracies provides for a caretaker government to hold national elections. Following the dissolution of the popularly-elected chamber, the outgoing PM and his cabinet continue to discharge their functions.

In case the ruling party secures a simple majority – or emerges as the single largest party – in the ensuing polls, it remains in office. In the event of the defeat of the ruling party, the cabinet steps down and the winning party is invited to form the government. In these countries, conducting a credible electoral exercise is the responsibility of a powerful and independent dedicated body. The electoral outcome is seldom called into dispute.

Why does Pakistan have caretaker governments both at the centre and in the provinces? The answer lies in the country’s political history and culture. Conducting free and fair elections has remained a perennial problem in Pakistan. The country did not hold nationwide elections for over 23 years after its creation. But when the first parliamentary polls were held in December 1970, the results were not accepted and power was not transferred to the majority party. This opened a can of worms, which led to the dismemberment of the country.

When the 1970 elections were held, Pakistan was placed under military rule. So, the question of a caretaker government did not arise. Be that as it may, the 1970 elections have so far remained the fairest elections in the nation’s political history. Their outcome might not have been palatable to those who had their stakes elsewhere. But this was not an engineered outcome. The then president General Muhammad Yahya remains a much-reviled figure to date for his inept handling of the post-election political situation. But he deserves our deepest respect and adulation for both the decision to hold the elections and the manner in which they were conducted.

The 1973 constitution, which was a consensus document, did in its original form include a clause pertaining to the formation of a caretaker setup. Article 48(5)(b) provided that if the president dissolved the National Assembly in his discretion, he would appoint a caretaker cabinet. However, the president was empowered to dissolve the assembly in his discretion only in the event that the sitting PM was voted out and no other parliamentarian commanded the confidence of a majority of members. In case the National Assembly completed its term or was dissolved prematurely on the PM’s advice, there was no provision for a caretaker government. In 1977, when the then prime minister ZA Bhutto had the National Assembly dissolved, he continued to be in office.

When the constitution was being drawn up, did Bhutto’s opponents trust him so much that they did not press for making the creation of a caretaker government mandatory? An answer to this question will be contested either way. However, whether Bhutto was trustworthy or not is beside the point. The reason no one insisted on a caretaker government to hold elections was that there was no such precedent in contemporary parliamentary democracies. In particular, the Indian constitution, from which the 1973 constitution borrowed a great deal, doesn’t provide for a caretaker setup. Therefore, the framers of the constitution were content with putting in place an election commission to hold elections.

By a twist of fate, the outcome of the 1977 elections – the first electoral exercise held under the 1973 constitution – remains arguably the most disputed and, by all means, the most disastrous of its kind to date. The three major demands put forward by the then opposition alliance – the Pakistan National Alliance (PNA) – on the negotiating table to Bhutto were: the PM’s resignation; the formation of a neutral government to hold fresh elections; and the removal of the chief election commissioner. It was then that the idea of an interim or caretaker government to supervise the parliamentary polls under all conditions was born.

It is averred that had the 1973 constitution contained the mandatory provisions for a caretaker government, the PNA would not have called into question the credibility of the 1977 elections. The subsequent political history, however, gives the lie to such a notion.

The 8th Amendment, whereby parliament put its seal on all the unconstitutional actions and orders made by General Ziaul Haq, also incorporated into the constitution the infamous Article 58(2)(b), which empowered the president to sack the National Assembly – along with the PM – if he believes that the government of the federation could not be carried on in accordance with the provisions of the constitution. The innovative article, a contrivance of one of our best known legal luminaries, made the setting up of a caretaker government compulsory because a sacked PM and his/her cabinet could not supervise the elections.

The first national elections to be held under a caretaker government were in 1988. This was followed by the 1990, 1993, 1997, 2002, and 2008 elections. On each occasion, some parties – at times even those that finished first – pointed the finger at the electoral process. The fact that the popular mandate in the 1990 elections was stolen has been established beyond doubt before the apex court in the Asghar Khan case. So, the induction of caretaker governments did little to shore up the credibility of the electoral exercise.

Article 58(2)(b) was finally deleted by the 18th Amendment, which was passed in 2010. However, the mandatory formation of the caretaker government remains in statute books. Constitutional amendments have expanded the relevant provisions with a view to making caretaker governments – both at the centre and in the provinces – appear neutral. The 18th Amendment provided that upon the dissolution of the National Assembly, the president would appoint the caretaker PM in consultation with the outgoing PM and the leader of the opposition. The caretakers were debarred from contesting the ensuing elections.

The 20th Amendment took another step forward by stipulating that the caretaker PM should be appointed with the consensus of the outgoing PM and the opposition leader, failing which a parliamentary committee would finalise the name of the caretaker PM. In the event of a deadlock, the list of the nominees shall be forwarded to the Elections Commission of Pakistan (ECP), whose decision shall be final. A similar procedure is to be followed for the appointment of caretaker chief ministers.

The 2013 elections were supervised by neutral caretaker governments. But all the losing parties cried foul. The PTI, in particular, alleged that the polls were systematically rigged for which it blamed all the key state institutions. Even the findings of a judicial commission, which incidentally was headed by the new caretaker PM, could not satisfy the party. Can anyone guarantee that the results of the 2018 polls would be acceptable to all major players?

In a mature political culture, the presence of a powerful and credible electoral body along with a consensus among political players to not call into disrepute the electoral process or outcome accounts for the credibility of the entire exercise. The presence of a caretaker government is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for holding free, fair and impartial elections.

The writer is a freelance


Email: [email protected]

Topstory minus plus

Opinion minus plus

Newspost minus plus

Editorial minus plus

National minus plus

World minus plus

Sports minus plus

Business minus plus

Karachi minus plus

Lahore minus plus

Islamabad minus plus

Peshawar minus plus