ELECTIONS in developing states often produce major disputes. Pakistan institutes a neutral caretaker regime before polls. Its caretaker experiences from the 2013 and 2018 polls provide useful tips on how to reduce poll disputes in other developing states. A review can also help improve the system for Pakistan’s own polls when they are held next.

In mature democracies, existing regimes continue but with a limited decision-making mandate before polls. Since institutions are strong, polls under a partisan regime create few issues, unlike in developing states. Before Pakistan, only Bangladesh had used neutral caretakers from 1996 to 2011 following electoral issues. The president appointed a chief adviser from among retired supreme court chief justices and a 10-member cabinet chosen by her/him. Cabinet members had to be: (i) qualified to run for elections but could not run in the ensuing election; (ii) non-partisan; and (iii) under 72 years. Even though the president who appointed the cabinet was earlier elected by political regimes, the detailed criteria for the caretaker cabinet kept them neutral. Three non-disputed polls were held under this system before it was oddly nixed. Since then, the 2014 and 2018 polls under partisan regimes have again been disputed.

Pakistan has a history of poll disputes and caretakers. It held its first national elections under universal franchise only in 1970 under an interim military regime. The 1973 Constitution didn’t mandate neutral caretakers. The 1977 polls were held under a PPP caretaker regime, the only polls held under an elected regime in our history. They were disputed, leading to street protests and martial law. Zia mandated in 1985 that if the president dissolved the Assembly, he/she could appoint a caretaker cabinet. In 2002, Musharraf mandated caretakers even with the standard dissolution. Elections between 1985 and 2008 were held under military/military-backed regimes or civilian caretakers appointed by the president after a regime was dismissed prematurely or had reached term.

The president often appointed active politicians who could even participate in polls being held under them. Caretakers also often undertook major policy decisions. Laws made during 2008-13 gave the right to appoint caretaker prime ministers and chief ministers to the respective leaders of the house and the opposition by consensus and in case of discord among them to parliamentary committees with equal treasury and opposition numbers and finally to the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP). The law barred caretakers from contesting or canvassing in the next polls and limited their functions to routine ones. All this made Pakistan’s caretaker system likely the most elaborate one ever made.

A look at the processes and outcomes of the 2013 and 2018 polls helps in analysing this system. Out of the 10 prime ministers/chief ministers appointed across two polls, five were done consensually by house and opposition leaders. The rest went to the ECP as parliamentary committees proved ineffective. Appointees included former judges, former bureaucrats, media figures and one businessman. The two media figures, both Punjab caretaker chief ministers, proved controversial choices. Creating Bangladesh-type criteria for prime ministers and chief ministers that limits these positions to senior civilian ex-state officials may lead to a quicker and less-disputed process, without the parliamentary committee step. The 2018 caretakers didn’t take major decisions, unlike in 2013.

Major disputes arose about the outcomes of the 2013 and 2018 polls. The 2013 ones were frivolous PTI charges against the PML-N dismissed by the court. The 2018 ones were credible, with the European Union reported pre-poll rigging. But such is our politics that the frivolous 2013 charges led to major street protests and a court inquiry while the 2018 ones remain uninvestigated given the sway of the accused actors. But there were no credible rigging charges against the 2013 and 2018 caretakers. Their presence also eliminated rigging by political caretakers, as in 1977.

Thus, neutral caretakers can be used until civil and state institutions become strong enough to ensure no rigging by partisan caretakers, as in India. Still, they won’t end the main source of electoral rigging in Pakistani history, which stems from not politicians but a well-resourced state institution that is suspected of rigging several national polls. No constitutional novelty can end rigging by that elephant in the room. But ironically, while this creative Pakistani improvisation may not end its own main source of rigging, it may reduce electoral disputes in developing states that luckily don’t have an overbearing state institutions wanting to control their politics.

The writer is a fellow with UC Berkeley and heads INSPIRING Pakistan, a progressive policy unit.


Twitter: @NiazMurtaza2

Published in Dawn, July 14th, 2020

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