The electoral machinery is still on a learning curve…
The talks about the caretaker setup between the government and opposition have been postponed till after Eid. In case the PPP and PML-N show enough political maturity, the matter would be settled by the prime minister and the leader of the opposition or the eight member parliamentary committee created for the purpose. If this fails to happen, the deadlock would have to be resolved by the Election Commission which would be an unhappy situation. This would reflect badly on the political forces showing that they continue to rely on unelected bodies for the resolution of political disputes. The only change this time would be that the controversy would be settled by the retired members of the judiciary sitting as members of the Election Commission instead of the serving judges in the Supreme Court.
While the 20th constitutional amendment does not require consultation with parties outside the parliament for the formation of the caretaker setup, politics requires taking other mainstream parties also into confidence. Whether the PPP and PML-N like it or not, the PTI has emerged as an electoral force that none can afford to ignore or unnecessarily offend.
In developing democracies, political rivalries often degenerate into no-holds-barred struggles. A caretaker setup formed without consulting the PTI is likely to be interpreted as a conspiracy by the two parties aimed at queering the pitch for the PTI. Attempts have to be made to avoid creating the perception. Nothing should be done that makes the outcome of the elections controversial and thus leads to calls for agitation.
In mature democracies, the elected governments continue as caretaker governments during elections without anybody suspecting any wrongdoing on their part. With election management bodies having sufficient independence and powers to ensure free and fair election, it does not matter who is running the government as the established norms and institutions are enough to guard against any possibility of interference by the government or a non political actor. Non political caretaker setups are specific to developing democracies like Pakistan and Bangladesh where democratic culture has not yet sunk in.
Widespread rigging with the help of the of state machinery by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in the vain attempt to gain a two thirds majority in 1977 election led to a movement that provided Zia a chance to stage the military coup. Among the consequences of the methods used by ZAB is the continuing distrust in the sitting government’s ability to hold fair elections.
Distrust between the ruling party and opposition further deepened during the 1990s. Political rivalry degenerated into enmity. There is yet no change in the thinking. The ruling party is suspected of manipulating the election results to its own advantage. Despite the independence recently gained, the Election Commission is not seen to be strong or assertive enough to ensure the integrity of the elections.
New caretaker setups were put in place during every election held after 1977. This hardly made any improvement as the president being the appointing authority of the caretaker setup, almost every election saw wide scale rigging. The 20th amendment has for the first time taken the power out of the hands of the President and introduced provisions which ensure the neutrality of the caretaker setup.
When Zia dismissed the National Assembly, sent Junejo home and called for elections in 1988, he devised a caretaker setup under himself as president. After Zia’s departure from the political scene, the military establishment used the office of the president to secure election results of its own choice. The presence of a docile judiciary made the task easier. President Ghulam Ishaque Khan retained Zia’s caretaker setup which organized the 1988 elections. Such was the popularity of Benazir in 1988 that the establishment failed to stop her from winning the elections. The PPP was, however, deprived of a landslide victory because the ISI brought together the parties opposed to the PPP on one platform.
Four caretaker prime ministers were appointed by two presidents to oversee the four elections held during the 1990’s. Ghulam Mustafa Jatoi who oversaw the 1990 elections was the leader of the opposition during Benazir’s first tenure and could hardly be considered impartial. Balakh Sher Mazari and Malik Meraj Khalid too were widely considered to be dancing to the tune of the establishment. With the exception of Moeen Qureshi, none was seen to be politically neutral.
The caretaker setup can maintain a reputation for neutrality only if it confines itself to performing the day-to-day administrative jobs. It must not take any action that can in any way influence the election results or have good or bad impact on the fortunes of any of the competing parties.
To maintain its neutrality, the writing of the letter to the Swiss authorities must be kept out of the caretaker setup’s purview. The task should be left to the next elected prime minister. Unless this is ensured, the caretakers will not promote confidence in one of the major parties taking part in elections.
A peaceful transfer of power is essential to strengthen democracy. For this, there is a need to ensure that the elections are seen to be free and fair. Since 1977, the results of every election have been challenged by the losing side. With an independent Election Commission in place and a neutral caretaker setup expected to be installed by the end of the year, hopes have been aroused that the election results would be widely accepted this time.
It will take a number of free and fair elections for the election machinery to become mature, strong and assertive. It will then command the confidence in its ability to hold free and fair elections even under a political government. The need for a non-political caretaker setup would disappear.
The writer is a former academic and a political analyst.