Making of ‘caretakers’

After the 18th amendment, it is mandatory that the general elections be held under an interim and neutral set-up

Mazhar Abbas
PDM leaders Maulana Fazal-ur-Rehman (right) talking with media persons along with Asif Ali Zardari (centre) and Shahbaz Shraif (left) in Islamabad on March 8, 2022. — Online
PDM leaders Maulana Fazal-ur-Rehman (right) talking with media persons along with Asif Ali Zardari (centre) and Shahbaz Shraif (left) in Islamabad on March 8, 2022. — Online

It is still a ‘million-dollar’ question as to who will be the ‘caretaker’ Prime Minister. Will he be a politician, economist or political economist, retired judge or veteran bureaucrat? Secondly, whether he and his caretaker cabinet will be there for 90 days, 120 days or beyond. No one has the answer yet, giving rise to speculations and even 'betting' in Karachi.

One thing is certain the delay in the polls would depend on the government's decision to agree on the next general elections under the old 2017 or fresh 2023 census. Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif has 10 more days to take the decision as he continued his consultation with coalition partners before his final meeting with the leader of the opposition, Raja Riaz, due later this week.

The Prime Minister has not taken the decision yet to call the all-important meeting of the Council of Common Interest (CCI) the only Constitutional forum to decide about the census result. If the CCI is called and accepts its result it would be mandatory for the Election Commission of Pakistan to hold elections accordingly after delimitations and re-allocation of National and Provincial Assembly seats, which can take a few more months.

Meanwhile, there are all kinds of speculations about the possible caretaker prime minister in the market with different names including veteran politicians, economists, retired judges and bureaucrats.

The top leadership of the ruling coalition comprising Pakistan Democratic Movement, PDM and Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP) leaders including former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, former President Asif Ali Zardari, head of JUI (F) Maulana Fazlur Rehman and others would have a final round of talks before giving their consent to the Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif.

“The PM has not yet taken our consent over interim set-up and caretaker PM,” MQM leader Khalid Maqbool Siddiqui told this scribe. 

“MQM certainly wants elections under the new census but in case it is held under the old census we will try to adopt a middle way,” he added.

“Injustice is nothing for the people of urban Sindh but we will not go for any extreme action,” Siddiqui stated.

Sources said Asif Ali Zardari is expected in Pakistan by Thursday for the final round of talk on ‘caretaker’ and future political setup with PDM leaders and power that be.

As several names for the caretaker prime minister are in circulation, sources said that former finance minister Hafeez Sheikh, and former governor Sindh Dr Ishrat ul Ibad were now also in the race. 

There are also reports that the former has recently met some of the legislators and businessmen and even discussed the caretaker cabinet but whether his name is among the five short-listed by the PDM and PPP leadership is yet to be confirmed by either of the two sides. However, two among the five are from Punjab, two from Sindh and one from KP, sources disclosed.

If the CCI notified the census result, the ECP would be bound to go for delimitation of constituencies and re-allocations of National and Provincial Assembly seats etc, which could take from two to three months and in all probabilities, the general elections can then be held by early 2024 in accordance to the census, 2023.

The head of MQM (Pakistan) Khalid Maqbool Siddiqi, told this scribe on Tuesday, that in case the CCI meeting was not called and elections were not held accordingly his party might seek a middle way rather than taking any extreme decision. 

Since MQM (Pakistan) now also has a leader of the opposition, Ms Rana Ansar, in the Sindh Assembly, Chief Minister Syed Murad Ali Shah will be holding a meeting with her.

Unlike in the past, a bad precedent has been set up in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, KP when for the first time in the country's political history a caretaker set-up took beyond 90-days as elections were not held on May 14 despite a Supreme Court decision.

After the 18th amendment, it is mandatory that the general elections be held under an interim and neutral set-up. Even according to the Charter of Democracy (COD) signed by former Prime Ministers, Mian Muhammad Nawaz Sharif and late Benazir Bhutto in 2006, general elections would be held by the neutral set-up and the ‘caretakers’ would neither contest elections nor their close relatives would contest.

Thus, many were surprised when the name of the sitting Finance Minister, Senator Ishaq Dar was pitched for the caretaker premier. His name remained in circulation and a topic of discussion as government and PML (N) in particular was never categorically denied and even the ruling party’s leaders looked confused.

It was followed by a new theory, initially floated by the PPP central leader and former information minister Qamar Zaman Kaira that the caretaker premier should be a politician and not an economist or a retired Judge. His proposal got support even from other political leaders, particularly the ruling coalition.

With reports that the term ‘caretakers’ could prolong beyond the schedule of 90 days many interested ‘individuals’ are now lobbying for their names for the interim set-up making the job of makers of caretakers a bit difficult and challenging.

Interestingly, Parliament, which had adopted or passed many controversial bills and even had given certain extra powers to the caretakers, had withdrawn the powers which it had given earlier like power to have international agreement with an amendment that it should honour agreements of the elected government.

The Parliament and the ruling coalition already come under heavy criticism for the kind of legislation it had adopted which many political leaders, rights activists, and journalists believe would have far-reaching consequences on freedom of expression, freedom of the press and all kind of voices of dissent. Amendments like the draconian laws like ‘Official Secrets Act, 1923’ and other laws would directly hit freedom of the Press.

While both PDM and PPP have agreed on the dissolution of the National Assembly on August 9, the two Provincial Assemblies —Sindh and KP— most likely will be dissolved two days later — on August 11. Thus, not much time is left to finalise the name of the caretaker prime minister as they also have to decide about the provincial set-up.

There is a possibility that the caretaker premier would be an economist with a political background as well and remain associated with one party or the other. But, the more important issue would be whether polls would be held according to the fresh census or old.

So far, the ruling coalition has not approached the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) leadership for their position on both caretaker and census.

The writer is an analyst and columnist for GEO, Jang and The News