By Zahid Hussain
Pakistan made some sort of history on May 31 after an elected government completed its five-year constitutional term for the second time in a row.
This is the first time in Pakistan’s 70-year history that two democratically elected governments have completed their time in the office, a remarkable feat in a country which had seen at least four military rules and where the army still reigns supreme.
As things stand, chances are that a new government will be formed after the next general elections scheduled for July 25.
While many in Pakistan celebrated the aforementioned rare feat, a new challenge emerged in the form of the installation of an interim government to temporarily oversee the day-to-day state affairs.
Unlike much of the world, Pakistanis don’t trust the election body to be powerful enough to hold transparent elections with the ruling party at the helm. As a result, an interim government comprising credible names mostly — retired judges — is set up until a new government is voted to power.
But as they say there is never a dull moment in Pakistani politics. This was especially true when negotiations began between the outgoing prime minister and provincial chief ministers, and opposition leaders to find angels for the interim set-up. It is a constitutional requirement to name a consensus candidate and in case politicians fail to do the job, the matter is referred to the electoral body to decide on its own.
At the center, after several rounds of failed talks, a former top judge, Justice (retd.) Nasir ul Mulk, was finally named as the caretaker prime minister. But the circus began when a former bureaucrat and a little-known businessman were named to rule Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces respectively. In both cases, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (Justice Party) led by cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan took a U-turn after first agreeing to the suggested names and then withdrawing its support at the pretext of facing a social media backlash.
Khan’s party, which is being tipped favorite to win the next election, has come under heavy criticism for its inability to stick to agreed decisions. Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) named Nasir Khosa, a retired bureaucrat, as its candidate for the caretaker chief minister of Punjab, the country’s largest province. The ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) agreed to his nomination. And once Khosa’s name was publicly announced, PTI backed out, saying that the bureaucrat had once served as principal secretary to ousted prime minister Nawaz Sharif.
In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, a little-known businessman, Manzoor Afridi, was picked as a consensus candidate by Chief Minister Pervez Khattak and opposition leader. However, Afridi’s name was also withdrawn after his credibility was questioned by journalists and opposition parties on social media. The similar situation was seen in Balochistan province. As politicians failed to reach a consensus, the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) stepped in to fill the vacuum.
The embarrassing flip-flops from the new political entrant has stirred up a national debate about the utility of an interim government and why the idea itself is flawed in the very first place. Bangladesh tested the model from 1996 to 2011 before dumping the practice calling it counterproductive.
Under the law, the caretaker government cannot make major policy decisions. It also doesn’t have the power to sign or enter into any major contracts or international treaties. The caretaker government cannot even transfer officials without the approval of the election body.
But more importantly, the model undermines the parliament which is a supreme body and it gives an impression that politicians cannot be trusted. This only lends credence to powers which are bent upon portraying democracy in a negative light.
There is also no guarantee that the losing side will not accuse the caretaker government of being party to election rigging as had happened post the 2013 general polls. Imran Khan’s party which emerged as the second largest party in term of votes accused the caretaker chief minister of Punjab of colluding with the PML-N to rig the elections. The party went on to hold a three-month long sit-in a year later.
Ideally, the sitting government should continue during the election period like the rest of the world. The Election Commission of Pakistan can be empowered to make sure the ruling party doesn’t enjoy any advantage over opposition parties. It is high time that politicians show some maturity and have the courage to accept defeat without creating a hue and cry about the authenticity of the elections.
Ahmed Bilal Sufi, head of Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency (PILDAT), an independent, non-partisan and not-for-profit indigenous think tank focused on political and public policy research and legislative strengthening, said that Pakistan must abandon the caretaker set-up.
“There should be a debate at the national level after this elections. If ECP can have a policy of strict vigilance and the powers of sitting government can be reduced to the level of interim set-up for two to three months, it can happen,” Sufi told ucanews.com.
“We should seriously think about it as it is ideal to think that a person can be fully neutral or impartial. It doesn’t make sense. Laws should be strengthened to take care of it, not individuals.”
Sufi, however, said that democracy was gradually evolving in Pakistan. “In the past, we used to have partisan interim governments. This has changed now. And over a period of time it may evolve into something which is normal and in practice in rest of the world,” he added.
Zahid Hussain is a Pakistani journalist covering human rights and issues affecting minorities.