Caretaker governments in Pakistan have a poor record of delivering free and fare elections



mooth and legitimate transfer of power among political contenders after every electoral cycle is a sine qua non for electoral maturity and political stability in a country. In Pakistan, there has been “only one smooth and legitimate transfer of power between two fairly elected parties in 75 years – in 2013,” observes Niaz Murtaza, who has a PhD in political democracy.

The very first provincial elections – 1951, in the Punjab, fiercely contested between Mumtaz Daultana and Iftikhar Mamdot factions of the Muslim League – were stigmatised by allegations of massive rigging. The Daultana faction was supported by the incumbent regime of Liaquat Ali Khan and the Mamdot faction had the support of Hosain Shaheed Suhrawardy. The term, jhurloo (sweep), became a part of our electoral lexicon following these elections.

In the provincial elections in the then NWFP (present Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) held in 1951 under the supervision of Chief Minister Qayyum Khan (he had become the CM after the dismissal of Dr Khan Sahib’s government), the incumbent retained his position and the exercise became controversial. The provincial elections in Sindh, held in 1953, were reasonably well regarded although some irregularities were reported. However, the East Bengal elections of 1954 exposed the efforts of the regime to manage the election outcomes. The United Front, an alliance of nationalist parties, dealt a crushing defeat to the Muslim League. The ruling party i.e., Muslim League could secure only nine seats (another member joined it following a by election).

From Bengal elections onward, seeing a defeat written on the wall, the central government used delaying tactics to avoid elections. This compromised the legitimacy and fairness of the electoral exercise. Even the imposition of martial law in October 1958 can be interpreted as a means to avoid and/ or delay the elections due in March 1959.

The local government elections as well as the presidential elections of 1965 held by Ayub Khan’s regime were considered highly rigged due to massive interference by the incumbent government. Later, the pro-democracy forces struggled against the regime through popular agitation and forced Ayub to resign. Yahya Khan’s was a transitional regime meant to hold free and fair elections in the country for smooth transfer of power. Nonetheless, having held largely fair and free elections in 1970, he tried to retain power in one way or the other. The delay in transferring power to the Awami League, the majority party, resulted in the secession of East Pakistan.

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto became a civilian chief martial law administrator and then prime minister of Pakistan after the loss of the majority east wing, due in large measure to a lack of respect for the popular mandate. Bhutto, in a surprise move, announced elections in 1977 – earlier than the stipulated time – but failed to hold free and fair elections acceptable to the opposition. There was no caretaker setup and elections were held under the incumbent regime. The prime minister as well as all four chief ministers were elected unopposed. To get the prime minister elected unopposed Bhutto’s opposing candidate from Larkana constituency, Jan Muhammad Abbasi, was abducted and not allowed to submit his nomination papers. Most of the federal ministers were also elected unopposed. There were serious allegations of massive rigging on the polling day as well. Hence, the Pakistan National Alliance (PNA) boycotted the provincial elections to be held seven days later. Instead, the opposition resorted to street agitation that facilitated the imposition of martial law by Gen Zia. The failure to hold elections under an impartial setup thus resulted in the derailment of democracy.

The December 1984 referendum of the Zia regime can arguably be described as the biggest fraud in the country’s electoral history, given the articulation of the referendum and the way it was conducted. Though Zia reported a thumping majority, he lost public legitimacy. As if that were not enough, Zia held party-less elections in 1985. The managed electoral exercise doomed the ideological factor in Pakistani politics forever and paved way for the use of money, biraderi, petty local issues, and above all, switching of loyalties in mainstream politics.

In post Zia arrangements, Ghulam Ishaq Khan, the Senate chairman, became the president and oversaw the 1988 elections. Nawaz Sharif and Ghous Ali Shah were the caretaker chief ministers of the Punjab and Sindh, respectively. Caretaker setups were introduced — apparently a lesson learnt — in the 1990. Ghulam Mustafa Jatoi was made the caretaker prime minister in 1990.

The Islami Jamhoori Ittehad (IJI) was generally perceived to be supported by the establishment. However, Jatoi lost his seat.

After the 1993 dismissal of Nawaz Sharif, Balkh Sher Mazari was made caretaker prime minister with the backing of the Pakistan Peoples Party. However, the Supreme Court restored Nawaz Sharif government in the Punjab in July 1993. However, general elections were held the same year under Moin Qureshi. The caretaker setup led by a technocrat was touted to have delivered fairer elections than any led by a politician.

The 1997 elections were held under Farooq Leghari as president and Malik Meraj Khalid as caretaker prime minister. Earlier, a Supreme Court verdict had upheld the dismissal of the PPP government by the president. Since Farooq Leghari, seen as anti-PPP, was calling the shots, the PPP never accepted the exercise as fair. After the military coup in 1999, the elections in 2002 were held under the supervision of a military junta with an elaborate control mechanism. State machinery was used blatantly to secure the victory of the Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid.

The caretaker prime minister appointed in 2008 elections, Muhammad Mian Somro, was considered biased in favour of the PML-Q. However, the electoral landscape was transformed in favour of pro-democracy forces after the assassination of Benazir Bhutto.

The Charter of Democracy (2006) called for a neutral caretaker setup through consensus among major political parties. This was spelt out and institutionalised in the 18th Amendment. The members of caretaker setup were to be technocrats, apolitical, with no known political affiliation, and were debarred to fight elections. In case of non-agreement between leader of the house and leader of opposition, a parliamentary committee with equal representation was to be constituted to make the decision. In case of persistent non-agreement, the leaders of house and opposition would provide three names each to the election commission. The chief election commissioner, neutral and apolitical, was also to be appointed with consensus. The elections in 2013 and 2018 were held in accordance with this arrangement.

Fakhruddin G Ebrahim was appointed the chief election commissioner for the 2013 elections and Mir Hazar Khoso served as caretaker prime minister. The PPP later complained that while the caretakers maintained neutrality, the chief justice of Pakistan and mainstream media were hostile to it and created an environment that favoured the PML-N. The 2018 elections were held under Nasir-ul Mulk as caretaker prime minister and have been mired in controversy. It has been alleged that establishment used state institutions, including the Supreme Court to influence the outcome in support of the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf.

In sum, the capacity of the neutral caretaker setups to deliver electoral exercises has been compromised due to intervention by powerful actors. In neighbouring India, by comparison, the election commission has been able to ensure fair and free elections without caretaker executives.

The writer has PhD in history from Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad. He heads the History Department at University of Sargodha. He has worked as a research fellow at Royal Holloway College, University of London. He can be reached at He tweets @AbrarZahoor1