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June 13, 2018

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Half time may have passed when caretakers get ready for elections

ISLAMABAD: It has now been two weeks since the election was announced. While consensus was explored on caretaker PM well on time, the provinces dilly dallied. All except Sindh failed to iron out differences over the names of caretaker CM till the Election Commission of Pakistan intervened.

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Now as the caretakers are trying to settle down, the bureaucratic team that will have a pivotal role is yet to be formed. None of the provinces has had a new chief secretary and police chief. The ones appointed by political governments are still there. Panels of names are being exchanged between thefederal government and the provinces for fresh appointments.

How much time it takes to evolve a consensus remains to be seen. Once done, the federal government will seek the ECP approval before notifying the appointment of a chief secretary or a police chief for a province. This approval is mandatory as election authorities have to ensure the officers of tainted repute or of certain political tilt are not posted on key positions.

Considering this cumbersome process, one can safely assume these appointments will take a week, if not more time which can’t be ruled out when Eid is just a few days away. Once done, the newly appointed bureaucratic bosses will have to form their own teams of deputy commissioners and district police officers, especially in districts considered crucial during the elections.

Unless this bureaucratic set-up is installed, a stalemate-like situation exists. The incumbent position holders are sitting idle in wait of transfer notification. More so, because any action by them may call into question their authority. Meanwhile, the ECP is also waiting for fresh appointments in order to pass on election-related directives or concerns to them. By the time the entire process completes, there will be a month left in elections.

So what is the point of holding a painstaking exercise of installing the caretaker set-up? Pakistan is the only country in the world where caretaker administration is used as a stop-gap arrangement to hold elections and transfer power to the next government. Its role defined in Election Act 2017 indicates the interim government has to attend routine matters crucial for running the government. Assisting the ECP in conduct of fair and free elections according to law is yet another task.

In short, caretakers are not authorised to introduce new policies and sign new international accords. Any appointment or transfer is subject to the approval from the ECP which assumes a role rather more powerful than caretakers once the elections are announced. The cost-benefit analysis of the caretaker system indicates it is more part of problem than solutions.

Controversies start right from the beginning. The candidates named for the CM Punjab and CM KP had to regret after they were caught in controversies. As the names were later finalised by the ECP, the naming of Hassan Askari Rizvi as CM Punjab sparked criticism from the PML-N. Earlier, it was from the PTI side when its own nominee, Nasir Khosa, was finalised.

While the caretaker set-up has little to no power, its installation and then formation of a new team is a cumbersome yet controversial process. What if Shahbaz Sharif was allowed to continue as CM but his bureaucratic team was changed and granted power no more than given to caretaker set-up? He would have no more authority than any caretaker CM. Same could have been done in other provinces. Even PM Shahid Khaqan Abbasi could have stayed. In that scenario, focus could have diverted on key bureaucratic appointments well on time and proper utility of two-month election time.

There is no example of caretaker administration anywhere in the world. Bangladesh had tried this, beginning from 1996, and then abandoned in 2011. India’s election commission was set up the day its constitution came into effect (January 26, 1950). It holds election without any caretaker set-up right from then. Even the original Constitution of 1973 didn’t have it then, wrote Ahmed Bilal Mehboob in a recent article.

“The original 1973 Constitution of Pakistan did not envisage a non-elected caretaker setup and the government led by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto continued in office while holding general elections in 1977,” he noted. Perhaps the widespread allegations of large-scale rigging in that election under an elected government triggered the idea to introduce caretaker governments, he explains.

However, most caretaker cabinets appointed for general elections, including the one appointed in 1990 under Ghulam Mustafa Jatoi, the leader of the opposition in the outgoing assembly, hardly qualified as neutral or non-partisan. As appointment process has been improvised over the time, it has failed to kill the controversies. Again, this caretaker set-up becomes target of criticism of the losing party, no matter how limited their powers are.

At a time when the ECP has been empowered enough to assume key functions critical during the course of elections like transfer/posting, there is no point of continuing with caretaker set up. More so, when they are good for nothing and become a source of controversies instead of offering any solution, this may be a food for thought for the next parliament?

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