Beyond their mandate

HE is an interim prime minister with a difference. Anwaarul Haq Kakar’s actions have appeared to go beyond his limited role as a non-partisan caretaker prime minister whose job is to lead the country to fair elections.

But, since taking over, the caretaker prime minister has appeared on most TV channels holding forth on subjects ranging from politics to the economy and foreign policy; one gets the distinct impression that he is attempting to present himself as a man who knows it all.

Last week, he flew to New York to attend the UN General Assembly (UNGA) session. On the way, he reportedly stopped in Paris to show the Eiffel Tower to his family. There was certainly nothing important that needed his participation at the global forum. In fact, not many important world leaders attended the annual conclave of the multilateral forum this year. Reading from a prepared text to a half-empty hall, his address hardly mattered.

There were also very few meetings on the sidelines of the UNGA, none of them of any significance, and there was no separate meeting with the official US delegation. Few are likely to take an interim leader meant to govern for just a few months seriously. But it appeared that the most discomfiting moment was to come at the Council on Foreign Relations, one of America’s most prestigious independent think-tanks. His comments there exposed a limited understanding of international affairs.

While the prime minister’s remarks on China’s strong ties with Pakistan — to illustrate which he referred to the US support enjoyed by Israel — evoked a strong public reaction on social media, his comments on Pak-Afghan relations were more unbelievable.

Responding to a question on whether there was any silver lining in Pakistan’s relationship with the Afghan Taliban regime, he referred to post-war US-Japan relations. “And after Pearl Harbour, the kind of relation US and Japan enjoys does give me reason for all the silver linings and being hopeful.”

It is not for an interim prime minister to speak on complex foreign policy matters.

There were more pearls of wisdom as he elaborated: “And when I think about the German occupancy of Eastern Europe, and then its western neighbourhood also, and when I see EU as a bloc, it multiplies and amplifies my silver lining.”

All that leaves one wondering whether he even understood the discourse. Comparing the border tension with Afghanistan with the World War II situation in Europe shocked the audience.

Indeed, one should not expect an interim prime minister to be well-versed on the subject, so it is not for a holder of that office to speak on complex foreign policy matters which don’t come under his domain.

It was not only such utterances on foreign affairs but also his controversial comments on domestic politics in interviews to the American media that have drawn criticism. For instance, the remark that ‘fair elections’ were possible even without PTI chairman Imran Khan and other jailed party workers raises justifiable questions about the impartiality of the caretakers. The comments came days after the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) announced that elections would be held in the last week of January next year.

The statement went beyond the role of an interim administration, and, by many, was also seen as interference in the electoral process. For instance, in a statement, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan said that such claims “are anti-democratic and ill-judged”. And that it was “not for him or his government to decide unilaterally what constitutes a ‘fair’ election”.

What is happening under the interim administration has reinforced doubts about the holding of fair elections. The crackdown on the PTI has intensified under the current set-up, backed by the security establishment. To many, it is clear that the leaders of the caretaker administration are just a civilian face for the actual powers. That makes the prime minister’s actions all the more controversial. If there is a purpose behind such projection in the national and international media, it seems to have failed.

Under the 1973 Constitution and Election Act, 2017, the main objective of the interim government is to guarantee polls that are characterised by openness, equity and clarity. The interim government has the duty of overseeing an electoral procedure that is just and unbiased. That encompasses the enforcement of steps to hinder any fraudulent activity related to voting and verifying the precision of the voter registries.

In 2023, the law was slightly adjusted to give the interim administration the authority to work with donors and other countries on economic and financial issues. It allowed the caretakers to use their authority for ongoing plans, but not for making new deals. Yet when a set-up such as the current one appears to have breached this specified constitutional role by making political statements, one is left with a strong impression of bias against certain political forces in the country.

It is the responsibility of the Election Commission of Pakistan to take notice of such remarks by an interim government which raise doubts about the fairness of the electoral process.

Meanwhile, one can hardly come cross instances in the past when an interim prime minister has taken such high-profile foreign trips. From New York, he went to London on an unofficial trip. Was there any need to take these extravagant foreign tours that bring no benefit to the country?

The caretaker set-up is supposed to be an impartial overseer of a smooth democratic transition. This aim cannot be compromised under any circumstances. Parties — in this case, the PTI — should not have to raise concerns over the current ruling circle’s partial stance.

It is not only the systematic dismantling of the PTI but also the growing curbs on the media and the suppression of freedom of expression that have negated claims of producing a level playing field. It is an extremely worrying situation, especially with the approach of elections.

It is for the ECP and the judiciary to ensure the holding of fair elections and also to safeguard the limits of the constitutional framework, so that no one oversteps their mandate.

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