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Who are the caretakers taking care of?

Updated 21 Jun, 2018 07:32pm
Illustrations by Soonhal Khan
Illustrations by Soonhal Khan

The term ‘caretaker’ has been a double entendre in our political lexicon. Whose ‘care’ are they supposed to take — democracy’s or the establishment’s?

When the system was first introduced, it was not, for sure, meant to take care of democracy. The caretakers were installed by the president to ensure that a government dismissed by him, under the infamous, but now defunct, Article 58-2(b) of the Constitution, did not return to power. The president made no bones about it as he would use his discretionary powers to enthrone, as caretakers, arch enemies of the ousted elected government.

It used to be an unashamed move to load the entire governance system against a fallen political actor and the results did not disappoint the establishment throughout the 1990s as these ‘Bacha Saqaos’ – empowered for a period of three months – would go to any length to oblige their handlers.

Equally sinister was the practice that the caretaker governments would take vital policy decisions, make financial commitments and enter into international contracts that the subsequent government had no powers to undo or disobey. It made governance a walk on the tight rope for elected governments and they did struggle all through their uncertain tenures to find a fine balance.

When the Parliament elected in 2008 finally sat down to purge the Constitution of the distortions introduced by military rulers, it could have returned to the original 1973 document by abolishing the caretaker government. But it did not.

The Parliament had to address another vital issue — how to ensure a smooth transfer of power from one elected government to the other or, to put it bluntly, how to stop an incumbent government from influencing the next elections. The Parliament decided to keep the caretakers to address this use.

The subsequent caretaker setups cannot be compared with the older ones. The constitutional amendments have severed the caretakers’ link with the presidency and defined their elaborate selection procedure. The process installs an ‘unelected’ government, yes, but it cannot be termed undemocratic. It is also not a slice of presidential rule inserted between two parliamentary governments, as were the previous caretakers. The caretaker setups now come into being through acts of elected representatives under defined laws and rules.

There was some initial criticism against the system. The powers of the caretakers were not clearly defined for the first elections held under them in 2013 and many people were apprehensive that a window of opportunity for the adventurous establishment has again been left open.

The criticism did carry some weight, as duly noted by the Supreme Court in a judgment issued in June 2013 on the subject. However, Article 230 of the Elections Act 2017 has cleared the air by delineating a dos and don’ts list for the caretakers. It restricts them to routine day-to-day affairs and bars them from taking any important decisions that the coming government cannot undo.

The fact that the powers and limits of the caretakers are defined under the Elections Act 2017 itself underscores that their main objective is to assist the Election Commission of Pakistan in holding free and fair elections. The commission also asserted itself through its Code of Conduct for Political Parties and Candidates in 2013 which stopped the caretakers from campaigning for any party or candidate. The Elections Act 2017 has now barred the caretakers from transferring and posting bureaucrats without the commission’s approval.

The act effectively reduces the caretakers to a ‘governance arm’ of the Election Commission of Pakistan. It may be easier for the commission to reign in a government with no political clout of its own and, thus, neutralise the state machinery before general elections.

There may still be loopholes to be closed but if the system succeeds in ensuring another smooth transfer of power, it shall be celebrated as a victory in itself.

This was originally published in the Herald's June 2018 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.