The interim caretaker system mostly benefits the military as seen in conflict-prone countries like Pakistan and even in Bangladesh in its last term.
Poll-bound Bangladesh is currently facing a political deadlock just months before the election. The largest opposition, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) is demanding a neutral and interim caretaker government during the election to ensure freedom and fairness. the BNP is citing alleged irregularity and meddling and stating that there is a lack of trust in the current system, where the election is held under the incumbent government.
However, the caretaker system was abolished in 2011 through the 15th Amendment of the constitution. The incumbent Awami League government is rejecting the BNP’s demand and is determined to hold the election under the current arrangement. This contradiction is leading the country towards a political deadlock.
Types of caretaker administrations
There are several types of caretaker government. In the context of Bangladesh or Pakistan, it is a transitional government that works before, during, and after the election until the next government takes over. Apart from Bangladesh and Pakistan, there is hardly any practice of the system anywhere else in the world.
However, there are caretaker systems in many countries, including in neighbouring India. In India, Australia and Canada, the incumbent prime minister and the government hold the election under him or her and play the real role of caretaker.
There are some provisional or transitional governments in countries with prolonged conflicts. Conflict-prone countries of Africa and the Middle East have employed interim transitional governments to stabilize the situation. There are interim-transitional governments in war-torn Yemen, Sudan, Libya, Chad, etc. However these governments are different from the concepts existing in Bangladesh and Pakistan.
Military benefits from caretaker system
In transitional governments associated with war and conflicts, military and security forces play a central role. These governments are mostly either military-run or backed in nature. The military is also the main beneficiary of such types of governments. Empirical cases suggest that as they enjoy benefits, they hardly advance the transition process. Instead, they try to prolong it and enjoy the perks of playing a central role in the government.
Even in Pakistan, the existing caretaker system provides opportunities for the military to exercise its control over domestic politics. Persons close to the military are usually appointed by the government. The military takes control of the process to ensure that the next government is also a pro-military government.
The latest appointment of Pakistan’s caretaker for the next election- Anwarul Haq Kakar also shows that the military plays a kingmaker role in the appointment. Kakar is a powerful senator from the military’s recruitment hub Balochistan. He is known to be close to the military and hence got the appointment.
However, this is not the first time in the history of Pakistan that the caretaker government is leaning towards the military to serve its interest. Traditionally, the caretaker is almost always endorsed by the military.
In the experience of Bangladesh, the last interim caretaker in 2007 also facilitated the military to take over the country. After the infamous 1/11 incident, the technocratic interim government was formed in the aftermath of political deadlock over the election. The military-backed government resorted to a ‘minus two’ formula to sideline two of the biggest political parties in Bangladesh. It arrested top brasses of both BNP and Awami League and tried to establish a ‘third choice’ to serve its vested interest. The government ‘overstayed’ for two years instead of three months only, and organised an election only after a nationwide protest for a return to democracy. The bitter experience of this ad hoc system led the parliamentarians to abolish it in parliament in 2011.
Hence, in conflict-prone countries and in the interim-technocratic system, the caretaker government benefits vested institutions such as the military or foreign power to manipulate the election process.
Hinders bipartisan consensus
Lastly, the interim caretaker is an obsolete system in the current political world considering its illiberal rationale and scope for misuse. For a nation, it is also a hindrance to a bipartisan consensus as it keeps mistrust alive and creates skepticism about the existing process.
Moreover, the interim caretaker system mostly benefits the military as seen in conflict-prone countries like Pakistan and even in Bangladesh in its last term. As Bangladesh is moving towards its next general election, it will be interesting to watch what is going to happen over the next four months and how the Awami League and BNP are going to decide regarding the election-time government.
(The author is a Dhaka-based independent researcher and analyst. Views are personal. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)