Caretaker conundrum

WITH less than three weeks left for the expiry of the current National Assembly’s term, the debate over the upcoming caretaker administration is heating up. The floating of Ishaq Dar’s name as interim prime minister has given an interesting twist to the palaver in the run-up to the election.

Although there was no formal announcement by the PML-N, his name has been under serious consideration by the party’s top leaders for the post. The proposal was not without purpose.

The finance minister, who is not only a relative but also the closest confidant of party supremo Nawaz Sharif, is considered the most trusted person to ensure that the party sails through the critical elections.

While the test balloon was soon deflated with growing voices of dissent within party ranks and a key coalition partner shooting down the proposal, the controversy has not ended. The episode was a manifestation of the top PML-N leadership’s desire not to take a risk with the installation of a so-called non-partisan interim set-up.

For a ‘positive outcome’ of the poll results, the PML-N desires a trusted person at the helm to deliver. Even if it is not Dar anymore, the plan has not been shelved.

The ruling coalition has apparently already agreed to choose a politician to head the interim administration. It will be a complete departure from the tradition of selecting a retired judge or technocrat for the position. The purpose of picking a non-politician was to ensure at least a semblance of neutrality in conducting the polls.

An interim set-up can only supervise elections; it cannot take policy decisions.

But the rules of the game have been completely changed by the ruling alliance in its attempt to eliminate any obstacle in the way to success in the polls.

Under the Constitution, the head of the interim administration has to be selected via consultation between the Leader of the House and the Leader of the Opposition. However, the exercise itself appears to have become irrelevant, with the PTI, the main opposition party, out of the National Assembly.

The decision is now apparently to be taken by the ruling coalition, in consultation with a token Leader of the Opposition. In fact, the composition of the caretakers may be decided by the bigwigs of the two most powerful political dynasties, who have reportedly gathered in Dubai again for a second round of talks to chart out their future political course.

It is incongruous that political decisions are not made at home and in elected forums but in other destinations and by a few powerful individuals.

In fact, the entire debate over the caretaker administration at the centre has become irrelevant with the electoral process already tainted by the ongoing political engineering, which is tantamount to pre-election rigging.

With partisan interim administrations in place in Punjab and KP, the fairness of the upcoming polls is already in doubt. Both provincial administrations are virtually an extension of the PDM administration at the centre. There is not even a modicum of fair play, with the establishment seen as resorting to its usual game of making and breaking political parties.

Placing Dar, or another of his ilk, at the head of the interim government would completely destroy the legitimacy of the polls or whatever is left of it. The plot has thickened with the ruling coalition’s plan to pass new laws that would empower the caretaker government to take policy decisions.

Under the existing provision, the role of the caretakers is limited to supervising elections. The caretakers are not supposed to take policy decisions.

Even in countries where there is no provision for an interim arrangement, the power of the incumbent is restricted during the election period. Policy decisions are left to the elected representatives to take. Moving new legislation and getting it passed by a truncated parliament has raised questions about the motive behind such action.

The government says that in the existing situation, where the country is facing serious economic issues, there is a need for an empowered administration to take immediate decisions. That is certainly very strange logic and will open up a new Pandora’s box.

Two months are not that long a period that policy decisions cannot wait. The move also fuels speculation about elections not being held within the stipulated timeframe.

Piggy-backing on the establishment, the ruling coalition is a partner in the game of dismantling the PTI, making a mockery of the democratic process. It now seems certain that former prime minister Imran Khan will be barred from the electoral race. But this will not help stabilise the political situation.

Sidelining a popular political leader never works. The ongoing repression of the PTI has already given a lifeline to Imran Khan, notwithstanding his own role in destroying the democratic process.

We have seen this game being played several times in the past, with leaders of the main political parties being disqualified. But their political support base could never be destroyed. Both Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif returned with much greater support.

Ironically, both the PPP and PML-N are now part of the same game they had fallen victim to in the past, to eliminate their opponent. Unfortunately, both parties have forgotten the lessons from their own history.

Whatever is happening will ultimately come back to haunt the political parties who have now aligned themselves completely with the security establishment. Tainted elections under a partisan caretaker administration will aggravate an already combustible situation.

The country is in the midst of an existentialist crisis, with an economy in dire straits and increasingly divided state institutions; it cannot be managed by an unrepresentative government coming to power in the event of controversial elections.

Unfortunately, the elections, which are supposed to strengthen the democratic process and provide political stability, may result in the country plunging deeper into chaos.

An already tainted electoral process will lead to further loss of public faith in the democratic process and strengthen the forces of authoritarianism. The rulers are taking the country down an uncharted and hazardous path.

The writer is an author and journalist.

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