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Caretaker PM of Pakistan visits the Oxford Union

The Union welcomed Caretaker Prime Minister Anwaar-ul-Haq Kakar on Tuesday for a Q&A. Held in a packed Gladstone room, Kakar was on the defensive, justifying his government’s efforts for free and fair elections, while rejecting that he is clamping down on press freedom and the right to assembly in the name of the military. 

Anwaar-ul-Haq Kakar, a previously little-known senator with a background in geopolitics and close ties to the military, was appointed caretaker prime minister after parliament was dissolved in early August. Although the law requires an election to be held within 90 days, the latest census requires redrawing political boundaries, which will take some time. This means that Kakar’s mandate could be extended to 6 months, giving him an important role in the upcoming elections. 

The event was chaired by Union President Disha Hegde, who started by asking Kakar about the government’s plans for the upcoming elections in the country.

Kakar responded to concerns about the legality of election delays by referring to Article 254 of the constitution, which makes room for delays in governmental procedures. He followed up his technical response by underscoring that the franchise is universal and that the government is obligated to factor in the latest census.

When pushed by the President to give up a provisional date for the election, Kakar stated that such an act would be “unlawful”, as the Pakistani Electoral Commission is the body charged with organising the election, not the Caretaker PM. 

The government’s alleged repression of opponents, following the protests and riots against the military that broke out after ex-PM Khan’s first arrest on 9 May, was also addressed. Kakar called these allegations unfounded and replied that he was following the rule of law as a civil functionary by prosecuting those charged with “arson and vandalism”, regardless of their politics. 

He said that members of the PTI are free to organise and mobilise support, as long as they stay within legal boundaries. He unequivocally stated: “Are we going to stop [the PTI] from contesting the election: No. Are we going to bar Imran Khan from the elections: No.” 

Hegde then questioned the Caretaker PM’s neutrality, highlighting that his cabinet is made up of officials from one party. Kakar cited the PTI’s decision to resign from parliament in protest for the one-sidedness of his government, calling it a “faux pas” which had cost them the ability to have a say in his appointment. 

Pakistan’s slide on the press freedom index and the government’s responsibility to uphold press freedom was next on the agenda. The Caretaker PM pointed to the fact that South Asia in general scored badly in such indexes, stating that critical coverage of his government shows that the press is free. 

He responded to claims that journalists were “frightened into silence” by adding that without “substantive evidence” of intimidation, these were “imaginative fears”. 

The discussion continued onto the overbearing role of the military in Pakistan. While the Caretaker PM accepted that “[n]obody can deny there is a civil-military imbalance in the country”, he argued that this imbalance was fuelled by “civil incompetence” compared to the “increased capability of the military.”

He said further that the military is discriminated against and that Western media too often “accepts as fact” criticisms of the military based on “hearsay.” He projected Pakistan’s future along one of two paths: An anti-military uprising akin to the “French revolution with its guillotines unleashed”, or a peaceful transition to civil power achieved through collaboration with the military. He added his personal preference for the latter option.

Hegde’s final question concerned the latest IMF bailout, and the allegations that it was brokered by the US in exchange for an arms deal with Ukraine and accepted to keep the government afloat while it repressed its opponents.

The Caretaker PM called these allegations “speculations” and portrayed himself as a defender of the liberal democratic order, comparing his crackdown on rioters to the FBI’s crackdown following the January 6 Capitol attacks. 

Questions were opened up for Union members 40 minutes into the event, starting with one about raids into Pakistan across the Afghan border. The Caretaker PM became noticeably more energetic and animated compared to the preceding confrontational questions, as he emphasised the importance of collaboration with the Afghan government to curb terror.

The second question was the most confrontational of the event, with the member saying that “according to the Pakistani mainstream press, the only problem with the country is Khan and the PTI”, quoting a speech by the Caretaker PM where he had allegedly said “free and transparent elections could be held without Imran Khan.”

The Caretaker PM started his response by asking if he could refer to the member as “my dear sister”, and asking if his “dear sister” had watched “the full interview from the source”. When the member’s response was negative, he stated that she had been misinformed and told her that all citizens had a “moral responsibility” to verify their information sources. 

The remaining two questions addressed the government’s efforts to keep Pakistanis from emigrating and the protection of religious minorities. For the first question Kakar said he preferred to see brain drain as “brain assets”. As for religious minorities, he insisted that Pakistan should be defined by its good intentions to protect freedom of religion, not by its few shortcomings to do so.

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