Why does Pakistan use a caretaker government during elections?

Spearhead Analysis – 08.06.2018

By Syed Murtaza Zaidi
Research Analyst, Spearhead Research

As the election draws near, and political parties shift their focus on to their campaigns, the reins of power are handed over to a caretaker government. This consists of unelected officials who are selected through a consensus between the opposition and the party in charge, and comprises of people with no prior political affiliations. While in every other democratic system around the world, the officials in power retain their seats through the election process, and only hand over their authority if another candidate or political faction manage to win the majority of the vote, in Pakistan we do things differently.

Pakistan is the only country in the world that uses this unique system during their election process. While other countries have experienced caretaker governments before, they have only been used in times of great emergency, or if members of a coalition government cannot manage to reach a compromise in time. However, our local system of governance is the only one that dictates that the parliament is to be dissolved prior to the elections, and a group of unbiased people are put in charge of the country to look after its day to day operations while the nation votes for its new rulers.

Scope of Power

While Caretaker Governments do possess some semblance of power, it has its limits. The Supreme Court of Pakistan states that “a caretaker government possesses limited powers and authority, particularly in view of the fact that when it is appointed, there is no National Assembly in place and thus, the all important aspect of accountability, is absent.” This ruling came in light of the 2013 election, when the courts realized that there was no real mandate for what a caretaker government could or could not do.

Since the ruling, the power of caretaker governments has been contained, but since this power has never truly been defined, or regulated, there is still a lot of ambiguity surrounding the nature of their authority. While the Election Commission and the court’s directives have helped in clearing up some of this uncertainty, there is still a lot more that can be done to clearly outline the scope of their powers, the criteria required to become part of the caretaker setup and the policy changes they may be allowed to influence.  

The Purpose

Most democratic systems around the world do use a form of caretaker governance during their elections, however it deviates from the Pakistani system in one major way. Instead of a separate caretaker government taking over the running of the state, the existing authorities just go into caretaker mode themselves. This basically means that the sitting government stays in power, but their authority is limited during the election process. These limitations can be defined by law or policy, but in some cases are based in tradition alone, like in the UK.

Why then, you might ask, does Pakistan alone choose to go through this arduous process each election cycle? Simply put, it is a matter of trust. Due to the mostly contentious election practices of its politicians, none of the major political parties are prepared to put their faith in one another. Almost every election has faced allegations of rigging or cases of voter intimidation, and it is now widely believed that the ruling party can always be trusted to skew the elections in their favor if they have the full power of the state at their back.

Even with the caretaker setup, accusations of misappropriation of government resources and voter fraud are still common. This was seen in the 2013 elections as well, when the PTI accused the PML-N and the MQM of having used intimidation tactics to secure victories in several constituencies, primarily in Punjab and Karachi.             

Conclusion

On the first of June, retired Justice Nasirul Mulk was sworn in as the Pakistan’s seventh caretaker Prime Minister. Four days later, the former Chief justice appointed six members to the caretaker federal cabinet, which include Mohammad Yousuf Shaikh, Mohammad Azam Khan, Abdullah Hussain Haroon, Roshan Khursheed Bharucha, Syed Ali Zafar and Shamshad Akhtar. The selections were lauded on both sides of the aisle, and were accepted unanimously by all major political parties.

These are the people that have been handed the task of maintaining the status quo in the country for the next couple of months, as the nation prepares to vote for their preferred candidates. The coming time is going to be fraught with problems, as is to be expected from an election in Pakistan, and hopefully this caretaker government proves capable of handling any issues that may arise, as a result. While it may not be a perfect system, for the time being, it’s the only one we’ve got!

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