Heads of caretaker governments are often referred to as a "caretaker" head, for example "caretaker prime minister". Similarly, but chiefly in the United States, caretakers are individuals who fill seats in government temporarily without ambitions to continue to hold office on their own. Full-fledged caretaker governments are not required by the Constitution anywhere else in the world; however, some countries rely on conventions or guidelines that restrict the incumbent government’s activities during the election period. India, Bangladesh and almost all other countries including Australia, Canada and UK have done away with this practice and an incumbent government just before completion of the tenure performs the task of holding timely free and fair elections and smoothly hands over the power to the winners. Nevertheless, in a super-rich country Pakistan surviving on IMF loans, under Article 224(1A), the caretaker cabinet is to be appointed by the President in consultation with the outgoing prime minister and the leader of the opposition. The concept was added to the 1973 Constitution in Pakistan by Gen Zia ul Haq in 1985. The amendments under the RCO state that if the president/governor dissolves the national/provincial assembly, a caretaker cabinet is to be appointed by the president/governor until a new prime/chief minister is elected following general elections. The justification given was that incumbent governments have a self-interest in influencing the election and may not provide a level playing field. As the memory of the 1977 election rigging and subsequent imposition of martial law was still fresh in 1985. Through the 18th Amendment in 2010, clause 1 of Article 224 was substituted with the current clauses, 1a and 1b. Clause 1a stated that a caretaker prime/chief minister shall be selected by the president/governor after consultation with the outgoing prime/chief minister and the leader of the outgoing assembly’s opposition. This procedure provided clarity to the process of appointing caretaker governments. Clause 1b explicitly stated that caretaker prime/chief ministers and their immediate family members would be ineligible to contest the immediate general elections. The term of a caretaker government is limited to 60-90 days, depending on whether the term of the legislature expires or is prematurely dissolved. The concept and practice of caretaker governments in Pakistan has evolved over time through constitutional amendments, judicial interpretations, political negotiations, and historical experiences. Under Section 230 of the 2017 Act, the caretaker government's role is defined as follows (though mostly violated):
Performing day-to-day administrative matters necessary to ensure the smooth functioning of the government.
Assisting the ECP in conducting elections in accordance with the law.
Restricting its activities to routine tasks that serve the public interest and can be reversed by the government elected after the elections.
Remaining impartial toward all individuals and political parties.
The powers and functions of caretaker governments in Pakistan have been a prickly issue in the country’s constitutional and political history. On July 26, 2023, the joint session of Parliament proposed over 54 amendments by PMLN to the 2017 Act including amendments to Section 230. According to the amended Section 230, the restrictions on the functions of the interim government would not apply whenever circumstances exist that necessitate it to take actions or decisions necessary for the protection of Pakistan’s economic interests dealing with bilateral and multilateral agreements or projects already initiated under the Public Private Partnership Authority Act 2017, the Inter-Governmental Commercial Transactions Act 2022, and the Privatisation Commission Ordinance 2000. Despite the ‘review’, the amendments remain a controversial topic as opposition parties and civil society accuse the government of trying to interfere in the electoral process and extend its influence beyond its constitutional mandate.
The controversy once again highlighted the need for a clear and comprehensive legal framework to define and restrict the powers and functions of the caretaker government. It also raised questions about the role and authority of the ECP, and exposed the lack of trust and consensus among different political parties on electoral reforms. The Constitution of Pakistan grants enormous powers to the ECP under Articles 218, 219, and 220, which mandate the ECP to make arrangements for guarding against corrupt practices, preparing electoral rolls, appointing election tribunals, and exercising superintendence, direction, and control over all matters relating to elections. The Election Act, 2017, further empowers the ECP to regulate and monitor the activities of caretaker governments, which are temporary administrations formed to assist the ECP in holding free and fair elections. The ECP has, however, been criticised for failing to effectively and proactively ensure that caretaker governments do not overstep their constitutional mandate.
Nonetheless, the appointment and functioning of caretaker governments for the 2023 election has already become a contentious topic. Almost all stipulated rules ad verdicts by the apex court seem to have been totally ignored by the two incumbent caretaker provincial assemblies in the Provinces of Punjab and KPK, which took office in mid-January 2023 for three months to hold elections by mid-April. However, strangely both caretaker provincial assemblies continued to function way beyond mandate and authorized period and despite clear date of dissolution and holding elections i.e. 14th May 2023 given by the Supreme Court; obviously in connivance with the outgoing Federal government that now stands dissolved with effect from 9th August 2023 and all provincial assemblies are also following the same having accomplished decimation of the only opposition party i.e. PTI and its leadership by extreme harassment, kidnapping, jailing, torture, media blackout and registration of dozens of cases against the non-compliant PTI members and leadership. In Punjab, the caretaker government has been accused by the PTI of bias, interference in the electoral process, and persecution of their workers and leaders. The matter is being challenged in the SC. A similar situation arose in KPK, where the caretaker cabinet comprises former provincial ministers affiliated with the ruling Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) coalition. They allegedly misused state resources to further their parties’ interests and favour their candidates, raising concerns about impartiality. Both provincial caretaker administrations were perceived as extensions of the PDM coalition, functioning beyond the constitutional 90-day term. As a matter of fact, in the larger public opinion, former PDM government and two caretaker plus two other provincial assemblies acted as the Undertakers for the PTI during their 16 months rule, hand in glove with the powers that be.
To tell the truth, the 13 parties’ pickle PDM government after ousting the last PTI government through a controversial vote of no confidence on 9th April 2022, used the period available before next general elections for wiping out their criminal and white collared crimes by amending the laws, eliminating the NAB cases through passing the specific bills/ amending the laws; and on the other hand, misused the NAB, other national institutions, amended bills and laws to eliminate the PTI as a largest political party, by splintering it and by inducing turncoats and finally succeeded in disqualifying the chairman of PTI and imprisoning him on untenable frivolous charges by an additional session court judge whose notoriety has spread all over the world through social media videos. The lower judiciary seems mostly in connivance under duress and the superior judiciary stands polarized and apparently helpless till proven otherwise before retirement of the incumbent Chief Justice.
On 14th August 2023, the Federal government got dissolved along with provincial governments (Punjab caretaker continue unabated gagging the EC and Apex Court) and a political light weight Balochistan Awami Party’s (BAP) Senator alleged to be sponsored by the establishment Mr. Anwar ul Haq Kakar got nominated as the care taker prime minister of Pakistan to the complete surprise of PDM parties that had been running pillar to post for pitching up their respective controversial candidates for the job and highly speculative media was also got dumb founded. On August 17, 2023, a care take federal government took oath comprising of 16 ministers, three advisors and four special advisor to the PM, who all are well known for their political leaning, anti PTI biases and proximity to the power corridors; will they have anything to contribute as per the given mandate costing hefty public money or will they just add “former minister” to their respective names, only next few months would tell. Ironically, minutes after their oath taking, the EC of Pakistan take away the sole purpose of having a caretaker government by announcing that elections could not be held in the next three months as delimitation of new constituencies would be completed by mid-December; so delayed general elections is already set in place to the glee of most parties of the PDM and the caretakers. Let’s see what does Apex Court has to say on that. The real test for the caretakers however remains to hold general elections within 90 days with PTI and its leadership given freedom to participate on level playing field; minus that it will just be a mockery of a democratic process with continued instability forecast.
According to PMLN mouthpieces, by mid-September 2023, as soon as the Chief Justice of the Supreme court as well as the President of Pakistan vacate their seats, the PMLN absconding leader MNS shall remove the mask of illness and replace it with an emperor mask and descend once again on the land of pure with the hope to become 4th time prime minister; of course with a lot of biryani, dhol-dhamaka and bhangra. That shall trigger a lot of political activities in the country including all PDM parties trying to keep PTI or at least its Chairman IK out of the process, working out seat adjustments, distribution of lucrative ministries beforehand while playing all old cards of ethnicity, religion, language, tribes and baradari etc. besides proving loyalty and submission to the Establishment. The EC of Pakistan may delay the holding of general election till February/ March 2024 or even beyond that under the excuse of delimitation of constituencies as per the new census but in reality allowing the PDM parties to further consolidate as well as extra marginalize PTI.
And finally, the Establishment being the guardians of the country infused with patriotism; but unfortunately at present being under attack National Center of Gravity from multiple directions, having tried the hybrid system of government in the last four years and especially since 9th April 2022 with horrific results on many counts may also be thinking of some better solutions to regain political, economic and security stability in the country. Since “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results” (Einstein Insanity) is well proven universal truth; therefore, will the Establishment, Pakistan Bureaucracy, Judiciary, Politicians and the EC of Pakistan join heads and hands to bring in the real democracy in Pakistan or will it continue with the same old mix & match amalgam of turncoats and corrupt elite to hit the bottom of Mariana Trench.
Or worse still, the evolving or created environment may push Pakistan from a hybrid democracy to a praetorian rule. God forbid, in that case Pakistan may be prone to either follow example of government in Myanmar or it may become an Egypt of South Asia; obviously with catastrophic consequences. That is for the care takers and the other power brokers in the country to ponder and avoid being stamped as undertakers in the history. On the other hand, the hapless public badly crushed under the highest inflation and energy prices continue to attach high hopes with the Superior Judiciary after Almighty Allah.