August 4, 2023
KATHMANDU – In South Asia, election results are often contested by the losing parties. Most countries in the region have instituted election commissions to conduct free and fair polls. Except for Bhutan, where election expenditure is provided by the state, in other countries, the parties or the candidates themselves have to foot the bill. South Asian history is filled with the people’s incessant quest to establish democracy. Yet this aspiration gets undermined if the election process is not free and fair.
In Pakistan, there are plans to hand over power to a caretaker government this month. In Bangladesh, the opposition demands the restoration of the caretaker government system that was abolished in 2011. These cases provide an interesting insight into the controversies surrounding the system and the inability of both countries to institute an independent election commission that can hold credible elections.
Pakistan has made amendments to the caretaker government system to make it non-partisan to avoid a repetition of the prejudiced functioning of some caretaker governments. In 2010, a move was made to bar caretaker government members from contesting elections. In 2012, it became mandatory for the ruling and opposition parties to agree on a consensual candidate for the caretaker prime minister, unlike in the past where the president would choose one. To make the mandate of the caretaker government clear, Pakistan amended the Elections Act 2017 to say that the caretaker government would attend only to routine matters which are non-controversial and urgent and be impartial to each person and party.
On July 26, the Pakistan Democratic Movement government further amended the caretaker government system ostensibly to strengthen it. Though caretaker governments in the past were barred from taking any decision pertaining to bilateral and multilateral matters, the amendment is aimed at implementing the $3 billion International Monetary Fund (IMF) bailout package. The move has been criticised by the opposition and some even accuse the IMF of influencing the amendment. The important point would be whether the government and the opposition would come to an understanding over a consensual candidate for the next caretaker prime minister when each side presents its list of three candidates.
In Bangladesh, the now abolished caretaker government system stipulated a chief adviser and a council of advisers. The system was introduced in 1990 after the opposition refused to participate in any election conducted by the military regime of General Hussain Muhammad Ershad. The Magura by-election of 1994, which saw massive rigging by the ruling Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), made the opposition political parties form a joint front to demand the establishment of a neutral caretaker government.
Ignoring the opposition’s demand, the then incumbent BNP government held a one-sided election in 1996 which was boycotted by the opposition. The BNP was compelled to introduce the caretaker government system.
In 2011, the system was abolished following a Supreme Court decision. Demanding its restoration, the BNP did not participate in the 2014 election. The party has made restoration of the caretaker government system and resignation of Prime Minister Hasina as its main poll plank for the forthcoming Parliamentary election.
The opposition has also questioned the validity of the Supreme Court judgement ending the caretaker government system as it was signed by a judge who pronounced this verdict after his retirement.
The breakdown of the understanding between the two main political parties for the establishment of the caretaker government system started when the BNP introduced the 14th Amendment to the constitution, increasing the retirement age of judges from 65 to 67 years to enable Justice KM Hasan to become the caretaker government chief. Since he refused to take charge, the BNP chose President Iajuddin Ahmed to head the caretaker government.
Protests against the decision degenerated into violence and finally the army-backed caretaker government took over power in January 2007 and conducted a parliamentary election in December 2008. The army-backed caretaker government must be credited with the preparation of a fresh voters’ list by removing many fake voters. Unlike in Pakistan, the caretaker government in Bangladesh can transfer bureaucrats appointed by the previous government to make elections free and fair.
In Pakistan, the roles of caretaker prime ministers also have been controversial. For example, the actions of Malik Meraj Khalid, caretaker prime minister in 1996 who played a role in the election of Nawaz Sharif and defeat of Benazir Bhutto, are known. Similarly, the role of Mir Hazar Khan Khoso in transferring, reshuffling and appointing officials when he was the caretaker prime minister was challenged in the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court provided a guideline to bar caretaker governments from making major appointments. In spite of the appointment of a caretaker prime minister, the military managed to manipulate the 2018 election in favour of Imran Khan. The Army-backed caretaker government in Bangladesh tried to banish the two leaders, Begum Zia and Shiekh Hasina, from politics and forced reforms in political parties to achieve this.
While the opposition in Bangladesh has demanded the restoration of a neutral caretaker government in the constitution, Pakistan has decided to install a caretaker government to hold the election. The demand for a neutral caretaker government demonstrates a deep distrust between the political parties, lack of institutionalisation of democracy and undermining of the election mechanism. It is important that election bodies remain neutral for any credible election as it is the only path to democratic transition.