Ahmed Bilal Mehboob, president of the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency (PILDAT), talks to The News on Sunday on the mandates, challenges and politics surrounding caretaker governments”
he News on Sunday (TNS): Can caretaker governments risk being controversial?
Ahmed Bilal Mehboob (ABM): No, they cannot. In fact, the very objective of having a caretaker government is to ensure transparency. Impartiality should be the hallmark of a caretaker government. For this very reason, efforts are made to form consensus among rival political parties over the structure of the caretaker government being set up.
TNS: Lately, there has been controversy surrounding political freedoms under a caretaker government (in the Punjab). What do you think of the imposition of Section 144 in the province?
ABM: The case of the Punjab has been different from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) where the caretaker chief minister was picked after an agreement between the outgoing government and the opposition. In the Punjab, the caretaker chief minister was appointed by the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) which was forwarded a panel of nominees. Prior to this, there was no agreement between the outgoing government and the opposition. Nor did the parliamentary committee representing the various political parties agree on a name. The Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf has not accepted the caretaker chief minister wholeheartedly. It has called him partial.
Coming to the imposition of Section 144 in the Punjab, I would say this should be done only in rare cases. For example, when there is a genuine security risk or there are multiple events in the city. Resorting to it too often may mean that the government wants to curb political freedoms. I think political parties should have the right to freely hold political activities, especially when elections have been announced. However, political parties should also be responsible and must not obstruct roads etc and make life tough for people. Processions and public gatherings should be announced after getting approval from the district administration.
TNS: There appears to be a trust deficit when it comes to caretaker setups. Why are caretaker setups looked at with such scepticism?
ABM: Unfortunately, trust deficit exists everywhere and we have doubts about oraginsations like the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP), the courts, the federal government and so on. We take no time in leveling allegations. In case of caretaker governments, the public attitude is the same irrespective of the fact that it comes into being through a transparent and comprehensive process.
TNS: In a highly polarised political environment, what sort of challenges are caretaker governments up against?
ABM: There are several challenges that a caretaker government has to confront. These include upholding of neutrality, maintenance of law and order, fighting terrorism, supporting the ECP in holding elections, taking decisions without bias and running day to day affairs. The Election Act 2017 states that a caretaker government must restrict itself to activities that are of routine, non-controversial and urgent, in public interest and reversible by the government elected after the elections. It needs to be impartial between all individuals and political parties. The caretaker government must not take decisions that have long-term impacts like signing mega projects etc. Such decisions should be left for the new government to take after the elections.
TNS: Can caretaker governments delay the holding of a Provincial/ National Assembly election?
ABM: I would like to clarify that a caretaker government has nothing to do with the holding of elections or delaying them. That is the duty of the Election Comission. What the caretaker government can do is apprise the commission about any difficulties it is facing like bad law and order situation. In fact, it is binding on the caretaker government to provide assistance to the ECP to hold elections in accordance with the law. So, if the elections are to be delayed, it will be decided by the ECP which can then give, withdraw and reissue election schedule.
TNS: Is there an alternative to caretaker governments in Pakistan?
ABM: I think there should be no caretaker governments. Instead, the elections should be held with the outgoing government at the helm. This is the case in many countries. To ensure impartiality the powers of the government can be reduced and the ECP can keep an eye on its working. When a caretaker government is put in place, its leaders need time to understand the affairs of the state but it has limited time at its disposal.
TNS: In principle, what sort of accountability can a caretaker government face? Can the National Accountability Bureau go after a caretaker appointee?
ABM: If members of a caretaker government commit a crime that falls within the jurisdiction of the NAB, they can be proceeded against. Under the amended NAB law, the NAB jurisdiction has been narrowed so chances of NAB action against caretaker governments are rather slim.
The writer is a staff reporter. He can be reached at email@example.com