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A Caretaker Government Is Ineffective!

by Irfan Siddique
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irfan siddique

It is high time to scrutinize the capacity, significance, and effectiveness of caretaker governments without any doubt. We should question why we have embraced this practice introduced during the era of dictatorship, which is uncommon among democratic countries worldwide. The Constitutional Framers of 1956 and 1973 never considered this concept. General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq introduced the power of the president and governors to appoint caretaker prime ministers and chief ministers through the Restoration of the Constitution Executive Decree 1985, which still remains a part of our Constitution with some technical amendments. The first caretaker government, under Prime Minister Ghulam Mustafa Jatoi, oversaw the 1990 elections, and the most recent was led by Justice (R) Nasirul Malik in the 2018 elections. Out of these six elections, none can be considered entirely credible and free from controversy.

Bangladesh adopted caretaker governments in 1996 but reverted to the prevailing system worldwide after twelve years, acknowledging the futility of this practice. Interestingly, they called the head of the caretaker government “Chief Advisor” rather than Prime Minister. No other country, big or small, practices this type of supervisory government. The top ten countries with the best democratic values, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), including Norway, Iceland, Sweden, New Zealand, Finland, Ireland, Denmark, Australia, and Switzerland, do not have caretaker governments.

Our unique caretaker system, free from constitutional and legal requirements, differs significantly. The Constitution of Pakistan clearly confines caretaker governments to assist the Election Commission in conducting fair elections. Court rulings have also emphasized that their role is not to initiate revolutions, make fundamental policy changes, or implement far-reaching measures. The Election Act 2017, unanimously approved by all political parties after three years of efforts during Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s tenure, provides a comprehensive framework for electoral reforms. Article 230 and its sub-clauses define the roles and responsibilities of caretaker governments explicitly. The sub-clauses of 230(1) are titled “Functions of Caretaker Government” and include: (1) General day-to-day management for running the government; (2) Assistance to the Election Commission in conducting elections according to the law; (3) Routine tasks necessary for the public interest, easily reversible by the incoming government; and (4) Fair treatment of individuals and political parties. Article 230(2), titled “The Caretakers shall Not,” outlines seven prohibitions, such as (1) major policy decisions, (2) policies undermining the incoming elected government’s authority, (3) agreements against the public interest, (4) international agreements, (5) public officer promotions and transfers, (6) transfers without necessity and Election Commission approval, and (7) influencing the Election Commission.

Despite this clarity, it seems our caretakers lack a clear sense of their role and primary duties. It’s been a month since their appointment, and it is unclear if a single cabinet meeting has been held specifically to discuss election matters or Election Commission requests for assistance. Few seem to have consulted the Constitution, Article 230 of the Election Act 2017, or relevant judicial decisions. These caretakers seem to have forgotten their purpose, distracted by various pursuits, from leisure to public image and publicity. They appear disconnected from their responsibilities and unaccountable to the public.

Caretaker governments lack the power, capacity, and commitment to ensure fair and impartial elections or prevent fraud. The results of the six elections held under caretaker governments support this assertion. Therefore, the incoming government and opposition should jointly remove this undemocratic provision from the 1973 Constitution. Like the rest of the world, the federal and provincial governments should continue their duties following the dissolution of assemblies, empowered by the Constitution and the Election Act 2017. Our Election Commission, already possessing significant powers, should be further strengthened, aligning with the practices of democratic countries worldwide. We should abandon the fruitless practice of handing over the country to directionless individuals for several months, paralyzing our nation.

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