Picking the caretakers


Something that the politicians should have never left to an unelected institution

I am writing this on Saturday, later morning, as members of the Election Commission of Pakistan sit in a closed-door meeting to pick the next caretaker prime minister from among the four names forward to them by the outgoing government and opposition. “Forwarded to them” is actually an incorrect depiction of the events. More accurate would be to say that since a committee of the National Assembly, comprising of eight members – four each from the Treasury and Opposition benches – after due deliberations, could not agree on who the caretaker prime minister should be, the nominations have arrived with the Election Commission of Pakistan, per the process mandated in Article 244A of the Constitution.

For those unaware of the details, let’s start with the process first: Article 224 1(A) of the Constitution requires that upon the “dissolution of the Assembly on completion of its term, the President, or the Governor, as the case may be, shall appoint a caretaker Cabinet.” Furthermore, the same constitutional article provides that “the care-taker Prime Minister shall be appointed by the President in consultation with the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition” of the outgoing Assembly, and that the same process will be followed by the governor in the provinces. And in case, the leader of the house and opposition “do not agree on any person to be appointed as a care-taker Prime Minister or the care-taker Chief Minister”, the process laid down in Article 224A shall be followed.

Article 224A states that in case there is no agreement between the leader of the house and opposition on the caretaker leader (Prime Minister or the Chief Minister), “they shall forward two nominees each to a Committee, comprising eight members, having equal representation from the Treasury and the Opposition” (and a similar six-member committee for the provinces). This committee “shall finalise” the caretaker leader “within three days of the referral”, failing which “the names of the nominees shall be referred to the Election Commission of Pakistan for final decision within two days.”

In accordance with this process, four names were put forth for the position of the caretaker prime minister (Rasul Bakhsh Palijo and Justice (retd) Nasir Aslam Zahid as opposition nominees, and Justice (retd) Mir Hazar Khan Khoso and Dr Ishrat Hussain as government’s nominees). Since the prime minister and leader of the opposition could not agree on one final name, the candidatures were sent to a Parliamentary Committee, which too failed to agree on any single name, and thus the four names are now under discussion before the Election Commission of Pakistan.

The extent of the rift in our partisan divide is evident from the inability of our political forces to agree on a name for the caretaker prime minister. At its core, the issue is not so much about the qualifications and integrity of the proposed nominees (all the nominees are individuals of considerable stature). Instead, the problem seems to be an inherent distrust among the government and opposition forces, manifesting in the fact that no one is willing to accept that the other side can propose an impartial name.

Failure of the parliamentary committee to reach a consensus, in terms of the nominee, was announced by the members “with a heavy heart”. Some claimed it to be a failure of politics. Others have said that this is a failure of the constitutional system that does not allow too much room to members of the committee to negotiate – they have ‘just’ three days to negotiate, and have no ability to add names to the list of nominees. And it has been advocated that, in the near future, a constitutional amendment should ‘fix’ these deficiency in order to enable the elected representatives to arrive at a consensus.

But all these are mere excuses. The constitution allows significant room for political forces to arrive at a consensus. The system is not flawed. The failure can only be attributed to the individuals and the distrust that persists in our polity, and not to the design of the constitutional process. The politicians were unable to trust and agree with one another.

In the next few hours or days, the Election Commission will vote on and pick the caretaker prime minister. And this announcement will be the sounding gun for the campaigning fervour. All eyes will then be fixed on the caretakers and the Election Commission of Pakistan. And as the rumble begins, we would all be well-advised to vote for and elect a brand of polity which, though partisan in complexion, can find a way to put aside their bickering and agree on issues that are beneficial towards our collective national ambition.

The writer is a lawyer based in Lahore. He has a Masters in Constitutional Law from Harvard Law School. He can be reached at: [email protected]