A heavy cross for the caretakers


The interim administration should be provided no excuse to extend its tenure

The caretaker set up which should be in place in less than a week’s time will not have smooth sailing. It needs to focus on its role which is to help host fair elections. But in its capacity as a provisional government, the caretaker government will have to take a number of decisions crucial for the smooth conduct of the elections.

The need for a caretaker set up arose on account of a lack of trust between the government and the opposition, in addition to doubts about the neutrality of important institutions. In developed democracies, existing governments conduct elections because the integrity of institutions remains unquestionable. As a cynical Tahirul Qadri quipped a few days back caretaker setups exist only in Rwanda, Kosovo, Nepal and Poland. Pakistan needs caretakers as the institutions have yet to establish their impartiality.

The caretaker set up will be required to help the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) in the conduct of elections. It will have to ensure that the demands of the ECP are efficiently fulfilled. To start with, it will have to ensure that the bureaucracy acts neutrally both at the federal and provincial level. Administrative and police officials supposed to have been appointed by the previous administration for political reasons will have to be replaced with those considered to be non-partisan. A lot of transfers will therefore have to be undertaken soon after take over. Administrative measures of the sort would be watched keenly by the parties participating in elections. The measures taken should inspire confidence in the integrity of the caretaker set up.

The caretakers will have to deal with the law and order issue too. The TTP has once again declared the elections to be repugnant to the teachings of Islam and warned the voters that they would be taking part in the exercise at their own risk. The militant network has made it known that it would specifically target the election activities of the PPP, ANP and MQM. The least that the threat would do is to demoralize many voters. In the worst scenario, it could cause voting to be postponed in several constituencies. The threat would have to be dealt with by the caretakers. The voting in the rest of the country however should go on uninterrupted.

Through its offer for talks with the government, the TTP in fact wanted to drive a wedge between the military and the government, on one hand, and between the various political parties, on the other. After the army left politicians to take a decision about the offer on their own, the TTP failed to isolate the military. The terrorist network however succeeded in creating a division amongst political parties as the PML-N, JI and JUI-F refused to condemn the TTP threat. This was an act of gross opportunism.

The new government would be stronger with a mandate supported by a heavy voter turn out. A low turn out however would reduce its prestige. This would be by some as an indicator of a reduction of enthusiasm for the democratic system. This would be used by the terrorists to claim that most people in the country do not support “western democracy”.

Preserving peace however is primarily the duty of law enforcement bodies. A lack of zeal on their part would lead many to conclude that the off stage players do not want a big voter turn out because it would strengthen democracy.

The economy is currently in bad shape. Pakistan has reached a critical situation vis a vis the balance of payments situation. The PPP government has been on a spending spree for five years. So was the Punjab government under the PML-N. So far, remittances from Pakistanis working overseas amounting to about $1bn a month have helped keep Pakistan afloat though by a thin margin. Finances are presently in a precarious position. While the Governor State Bank believes there is no cause for worry, Asian Development Bank’s country director Werner Liepach told Reuters in an interview early this month that Pakistan would need up to $9 billion from the IMF to shield the economy. Further that the country has enough hard currency to cover only about two months of imports. In other words, before the elections are over the country might be desperately in need of money.

Those who support Dr Ishrat Hussain as caretaker Prime Minister argue that only an economist with a vast experience of interaction with international monetary organisations can cope with the challenge the pre- election set up is going to face.

What needs to be emphasized is that it is not the job of the caretakers to make any contract having long term impact on the country’s economy unless with the consent of the major parties taking part in elections.

The caretaker set was conceived as an arrangement not having a tilt for any of the political contenders. Partisan elements being introduced into the set up as happened in Sindh would make the neutrality of the caretakers questionable. A similar attempt made by the party in Balochistan was foiled by the timely intervention of the Balochistan High Court.

The caretakers must not take major legislative decisions. They have to act as neutral occupants of administrative positions till the voters decide who should best fill them.

One expects the caretakers to shun certain activities. They must not be seen indulging in political witch-hunting in any form. Accountability of the politicians is beyond their purview. The new set-up must stay focused on holding elections in a free and fair manner and hand over the power to the winning party or coalition within the agreed time framework.

There are a number of cases where judgments of the Supreme Court are yet to be implemented. These include the NICL scam, Hajj corruption scandal, Pakistan Steel Mills case and re-employment of retired officers. One hopes that the Supreme Court would wait for a few more weeks till the new government takes over instead of pushing the caretakers. This would ensure that the caretaker setup concentrates on their work. The interim administration should be provided no excuse to extend its tenure. Any attempt to prolong the stay would be detrimental for democracy and lead to social unrest.

The writer is a political analyst and a former academic.