Night Watchmen

As the caretaker governments, federal and provincial, approach completion of their terms by end-May 2013, it becomes relevant to reflect on options for possible improvements to the appointment, functions and responsibilities of such governments in the future. Though unelected, caretaker governments in Pakistan have legitimacy – sanctified by Article 224 of the constitution.
In democracies with varying levels of development, there is normally no need for caretaker governments. In the directly-elected presidential democracy of the US or the directly elected parliamentary democracy of India, the incumbent government remains in place. In the US, the opposition and the people at large accept the ability of the incumbent administration to prevent its partisan interests from adversely impacting on the fairness of the electoral process.
India’s Election Commission has acquired enough credibility for the opposition to feel confident that the continuation in office of the incumbent government will not place other parties at a disadvantage. In Pakistan, we will hopefully move towards such a consensus in the future. Observing the experience of the present interim regime, what is needed is a consensus on possible reforms to make such transitory governments more effective and responsive to the country’s needs.
Reforms could be considered in four spheres: the date of appointment; the composition of the governments; the period of tenure; the mandate. Instead of being named only close to, or after the completion of the terms of the legislatures as happened in 2013, there should be a legal requirement to announce the names of the caretaker prime minister and the four caretaker chief ministers about 30 days before the completion of the tenure of outgoing elected governments. Such advance announcements of appointments after consensus between the prime minister, chief ministers and the leaders of the opposition will enable outgoing holders of high public office to comprehensively brief incoming caretaker heads about subjects of critical importance.
A longer period of formal preparation will better enable the interim leaders to work with well-informed authority. The existing method of an abrupt, overnight change is unfair to the incoming heads of government. If the announcements of the names of ministers of both federal and provincial governments are also determined in advance, the ability of the caretaker governments to do justice to their task would be significantly enhanced.
During the pre-poll phase and on May 11 itself, we saw the tragic spectacle of terrorist attacks on certain political parties and leaders in which both children and adults were also killed indiscriminately. The caretaker governments looked like helpless bystanders – unprepared and unequipped to pre-empt and prevent such mayhem. It is also claimed that some major planned attacks were detected and prevented in advance during the caretaker phase and thus reduced potential damage.
Caretaker regimes should be obligated to include office-holders for portfolios of particular importance from international, regional and security perspectives. Was this the only federal government in the world for several weeks without a foreign minister, a finance minister and a defence minister exactly when these subjects required undivided attention at the ministerial levels?
In addition to giving more robust weightage to criteria for selection such as non-partisanship, integrity and competence, the factor of physical fitness could be given more attention.
This caretaker tenure is marked by a bizarre lack of internal coordination. The interior ministry expels the Pakistan bureau chief of The New York Times without consulting the information ministry which complains publicly. The law ministry terms an action on CNG announced by another ministry as unconstitutional. The Supreme Court issues a contempt notice to the prime minister. Appointments, transfers and dismissals of officials continue after May 11.
An ideal option would be that, as a symbol of non-partisanship, the chief election commissioner should also simultaneously serve as the caretaker prime minister. This would energise the linkage between the Election Commission and the administrative apparatus and place all personnel directly under the command and control of the CEC.
As Elections 2013 have shown, the dependence of the CEC and the ECP upon the speed and efficiency with which the caretaker heads took – or did not take – action left many problems unaddressed. Real-time tracking and resolution of crises that erupt on polling day rather than belated, post-event reactions are the keys to effective election-day management. The next senior-most member of the Election Commission could become the deputy chief election commissioner responsible for the day-to-day oversight of the electoral process while the CEC oversees the executive aspects of the state.
A 90-day or – as in 2013 – a 60-day period, or even less, for a caretaker government is too brief. Ministries and sectors, subjects and issues, problems and crises, opportunities and possibilities deserve a decent length of time and depth of attention to both goals and details. Their tenure should be increased two-fold by say, four months instead of the present two to three months.
This quarter-year could be used as follows: one month for comprehensive briefing, familiarisation, orientation, preparation and team-building; two months to take actions not previously taken by the outgoing governments and to formulate policy reforms where urgently required, including new temporary legislation in the form of ordinances, to be accepted or rejected by the elected legislatures to follow ;and the fourth and last month to actively support the process of facilitating free and fair elections and to take essential governance actions.
The mandate of caretaker governments is not to merely mark time but, like all governments, advance the country’s interests. Each day in the life of a nation-state is as priceless as each day in the life of its citizens. While all nation-states are complex entities, Pakistan has more than a normal share of inter-locking complications, internal and external threats compounded by bad governance and poor infrastructural factors. A country such as ours requires full-scale, full-time, sustained attention by its leadership – even if it is there only for a few months – not a ceremonial, token presence.
To apply a cricketing term: a caretaker government in Pakistan should not be a stop-gap night watchman. So profound and pressing are the challenges facing Pakistan that a caretaker government should serve as a purposeful bridge between two elected governments. If necessary, caretakers should take unpopular but tough decisions and also contribute new concepts and proposals for the consideration of elected incoming governments.