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Extended caretaker setup?

The world doesn’t operate on Pakistan’s timetable. While the economic and political crisis in the country continue to metastasize and deepen, the regional and global realities that shape and inform Pakistan’s choices continue to evolve. The anticipated intensification of the political crisis in Islamabad over the coming weeks, and possibly months, will make decision making even more complicated than it usually is.

The most urgent challenges the country faces include the burgeoning food security and agricultural crisis, a long-standing imbalance in Pakistan’s power sector in terms of the fuel mix that keeps the nation moving, a temporary but worrying diminished trust between Islamabad and ironically, both Beijing and Washington DC, and closest to home, the very complex situation in Afghanistan. All four of these challenges are treated as problems to be managed, rather than opportunities to be exploited. It is important to distinguish between short-term fixes that don’t address the fundamentals and longer-term manoeuvres that serve the interests of the country whose median age is still under 23 years.

Whenever the election takes place, the Pakistani elite have a responsibility to ensure that the republic handles these four issues capably and competently. At a minimum, this means instituting the right short-term fixes, and leaving enough strategic space for the longer-term manoeuvres necessary for a true exploiting of opportunity.

Unsurprisingly, as usual, the most profound risk Pakistan faces in this regard is not external, but internal. The whispers and chatter around the notion of an extended ‘caretaker’ government are gaining momentum, despite such a notion having no constitutional basis or political backing. There are two paths for Pakistan now: an election as soon as humanly possible, or an election at the scheduled time in the latter part of 2023. There is no in-between.

The in-betweeners in the Pakistani system had their chance in 2018, and again in March 2022. On both occasions, the ‘management’ of organic political processes were mismanaged. After three explicit efforts to ‘manage’ Pakistan that, respectively, produced the break-up of the country (thank you Field Marshal Ayub), the burial of Jinnah’s Pakistan (thank you, General Zia) and the era of unmitigated terrorism in the country (thank you, General Musharraf) one may have expected a robust refusal to try to ‘manage’ once again. Serving and retired officials from the military need to engage in deep reflection on the fruit of repeated explicit and implicit interventions in issues and areas that are not the military’s domain. The country can ill afford any further experiments in governance.

Talk of an extended caretaker is dangerous and, if actualised, will undermine Pakistan’s progress as a democratic nation. Its ability to function as a cohesive and coherent home to a multitude of sub national identities, and diverse religious and sectarian groups will be compromised. An extended caretaker setup is a formula for resetting the clock on the institutional maturity and lesson learning by five decades – and an invitation to forces inimical to Pakistan’s existence to take advantage of the substantial disquiet that an unelected gaggle of technocrats, no matter how qualified and honest they may be, will produce. This holds both in the new, post Vote of No Confidence urban political minefield seemingly dominated by the PTI, and in the traditional so-called peripheries of the country’s discourse – where the primary complaint of the neglected and underserved citizen is the lack of sunlight, oxygen and accountability.

Caretakers have one role, and one role only: enable the conduct of free, fair and credible elections. When they overstep this role – whether because they have support to do so from Rawalpindi, or a more circuitous path via the judiciary – they end up deoxygenating the space for incoming elected governments to fulfil their promises and potential. The most recent lesson in this regard was offered by Shamshad Akhtar’s conduct as finance minister in the caretaker government of 2018; her unelected “austerity” and fiscal tightening may have been justified by the monetary and fiscal ‘generosity’ of the Shahid Khaqan Abbasi government, but it ended up setting a template of failure for Asad Umar as the finance minister.

The lesson is clear: all contesting political parties have a massive interest in limiting the agency and decision-making capability of caretakers. It is ironic and worrying that instead of learning this lesson, both the PML-N and the PTI have made decisions around the petroleum subsidy that almost guarantee MORE, and not less agency for an unelected technocrat to do things they should not ever have the power to do.

As key decision-makers contemplate what to do now with the fires that seem to be raging uncontrollably across the political landscape, they should be asking themselves three questions.

First, should a country that has grown at nearly six per cent per annum for two consecutive years be worried about food security and oil prices to the extent of these questions deciding how long any Pakistani leader can or cannot be prime minister?

Second, should a country that was right about Afghanistan for two decades, and managed to maintain its position on Afghanistan across four US presidencies, be so vulnerable to the PTI’s fictional narrative about US-sponsored regime change?

Third, should democrats have a better answer to questions about daily miscarriages of procedural justice, and a sustained structural commitment of the elite to distributive injustice than what the PPP and the PML-N can offer?

The easy answer to the first question is Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But that conflict is the same for every country on the planet; not every country has gone into an uncontrollable tailspin of domestic political instability and macroeconomic indecision. What factors have exacerbated Pakistan’s vulnerability to the Russia-Ukraine dynamic? Price floors on domestic agricultural produce may be part of the answer. Ill-advised political rhetoric deployed by Imran Khan in the international arena might be another. But how much of the answer lies in unchallenged elite capture of the power sector? How much of a cost does a continued over reliance on oil and gas entail for Pakistan? How much Pakistani sovereignty is bartered away through irrational and suicidal public policy in the energy and power sector? And who benefits from these sweetheart deals?

Similar questions need to be asked about the massive gap in the evidence of Pakistan’s strategic and tactical autonomy on the one hand, and the claims of US engineered regime change on the other. How has Imran Khan managed to ignite and sustain the imagination of educated, sophisticated, urbane Pakistanis from all parts of the country on the issue of US-manufactured regime change? This despite the mountains of evidence that Pakistan has – consistently, and sometimes to the detriment of the interests of its own people – maintained remarkable strategic autonomy on Afghanistan, on India, on Iran and even on China. It has chosen the path it deemed best for itself – and it has done so largely through a strange symbiosis of political and military alignment.

No amount of pressure has managed to force Pakistan’s hand on any issue. Yet somehow, the Americans are deemed to have engineered a much more profound change, and done so, not at the level of president or secretary of state, or head of the CIA – where pressure has usually come from, but supposedly from a BPS-20 equivalent bureaucrat in Foggy Bottom? There are deeper dynamics at play here – and Pakistan’s policy elites need to do better than merely counter the allegation. They need to examine why a fantasy fiction account of the vote of no-confidence has gained as much traction as it has.

Finally, there is the question of the failures of procedural and distributive justice. The PPP, PML-N and PTI all share a similar record on reform. People’s lack of confidence in the constitution, or in democracy, or in federalism, and the excitement for dangerous fantasies like extended caretaker setups is anchored in a vacuum of credible reform.

If the best that the three mainstream parties can offer are cheap theatrics and the same beeline for Rawalpindi that has been in place since 2008, then all that Pakistani people should expect, no matter who the prime minister, is the same thing they have gotten since 2008: more of the same. An extended caretaker setup would be the extreme version of such tedium. No democrat should entertain the notion.

Mosharraf Zaidi, "Extended caretaker setup?," The News. 2022-05-24.
Keywords: Political science , Political issues , Political instability , Political parties , Democrats , Federalism , Accountability , Imran Khan , Asad Umar , Pakistan , CIA , PTI , PPP