The fumbling over the names of the caretaker Prime Minister and Chief Ministers was not predicted, though it could have been. Apart from the very real desire of the incumbents to have their own nominees selected, there was the very important factor that this was the first time. As the example of the infamous Article 58 (2)(b) showed, it took time, and a number of presidential dissolutions, before there was an encrusting of the bare bones of the constitutional provision with the kind of precedent, judicial mainly, that made the dissolution circumscribed by constitutional convention.

Article 58 (2)(b) became a self-fulfilling prophecy, with not only all Presidents elected in its currency using it, but one President actually used it twice. It was used against political opponents as well as partners, to the extent that Farooq Leghari, who was elected to the presidency because he was a PPP loyalist, used it to sack the very same PPP government that elected him.

Similarly, the provisions which provided that the elections would be conducted by a caretaker government was bound to be followed, even it provided for a parliamentary committee if the leaders of the house and leaders of the opposition failed to agree on a caretaker head of government and that the decision would be made by the Election Commission if the committee failed to agree, was just asking to be used.

The PPP has a paradoxical position. It is the party which has claimed that even the elections it has won were rigged against it, not to speak of the ones it lost. That makes it most likely to claim that the current polls were rigged against it. That makes it disinclined to accept as neutral any caretaker government, for such an acceptance would mean accepting a loss.

One reason is that politicians have an avenue left open in case they remain obdurate. The principle advantage of obduracy is that politicians want the option of claiming that their defeat in the elections was caused by an unfair caretaker government, not through any fault of their own.

The very provision of a caretaker government shows that there is some attempt to prevent this claim being made. In other countries with parliamentary system, the norm is for the sitting government to remain in office. Until the 19th century, the British governments that had lost the election actually used to remain until a formal vote of no-confidence was passed, but the done thing is for a defeated PM to resign, and advise that the head of the opposing party be invited to form the government. 

Whatever the system, whoever the caretakers, the legitimacy of a democratic government depends on everyone accepting that the elections were legitimate. Indeed, one of the most important functions of a losing party is the acceptance of the result, which implies both an acceptance of the legitimacy of the elections themselves and of the government that has been produced.

At the same time, there is a certain degree of uncertainty about what caretakers can do. In the pre-1977 era, when elections were carried out by government officials, there was a lot a Prime Minister could do, in terms of posting out officials who did not cooperate. The Chief Minister could do much the same, and since both they and the Prime Minister were fighting for their continuance in power, they could do anything.

Apart from the prohibition of the caretaker ministers or their relatives contesting, there has been the empowerment of the Election Commission. As it prohibits any transfers it sees as means to influence the elections, and as the powers over officials’ future careers lies in the hands of those who are not yet elected, major incentives to allow, or even carry out, the standard (and cruder) methods of rigging, which involve ballot stuffing, voter impersonation and booth capturing.

One of the main functions a federal caretaker government fulfils, is providing the legal framework governing the election, by the use of the power of promulgating ordinances. However, as this may be reviewed by the Supreme Court, which has shown that it relies on the constitution, even this power remains in doubt.

As the provincial government actually posts the federal employees it has been assigned, but its own employees, usually at the lower echelons of the general administration, the police and the revenue department, its caretakers are also of great importance. Some would argue that they are, probably, of more importance than the federal government. The importance of the provinces was shown in these elections, and it was perhaps not a defined idea among the federal legislators who drafted the caretaker provision, that the provinces would play such an important role.

One thing giving them so much importance was the insistence, which still continues, that the election to both national and provincial legislatures be held on the same day - May 11 in this case. While this is an idea that has much to recommend it, not least the ground of administrative convenience, there is nothing in the constitution mandating it. India tried to follow this, but went for different election dates, because of the multiplicity of federal units. With four, Pakistan can continue to follow one date. However, there has to be coordination between the federal and provincial governments to get the timing right.

Another interesting development was the stand-off between the PPP and the PML-N. Whereas one controlled the federal government while forming the opposition in the largest province, the other was in a mirror-image position. As a result, the negotiations about the caretaker head of one government had a material effect on the negotiations about the other.

Another phenomenon was to be noted in Sindh and Balochistan, where parties which had remained in government for almost the full five years, suddenly went into the opposition, thereby making the agreement between the leaders of the house and opposition one between people, who had until recently been Cabinet colleagues. That no one likes being in the opposition is a truism of electoral politics, which means that Pakistani politicians try to avoid it. The governments see, thereby, an opportunity to have the consultation as with someone friendly, rather than a diehard opponent (not that any can be found).

One of the most interesting things that has happened in this whole process is that the process has opened up. No longer is the caretaker head of government someone whose track record may well be unknown. It was quickly noted that both the treasury and opposition had nominated ‘IMF’ candidates in Dr Ishrat Hussain and Dr Abdul Hafeez Sheikh. However, one of the problems of an open nomination process, the embarrassment of unsuccessful candidates, remained. Not just dropped candidates, but even those not nominated, were named, and not everyone had the excuse of wanting to contest the polls.

Even as the PML-N chief, Mian Nawaz Sharif, said that the caretakers in Sindh and Balochistan were not acceptable, the country is heading inexorably to the polls, both national and provincial. Whatever the results of the polls, the hope of the Pakistani people is that they will lead to a government which do better at solving its problems than those whose tenure has expired.

The writer is a veteran journalist and founding member as well as executive editor of TheNation. Email: maniazi@nation.com.pk