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“Frustrating and Disappointing”: Why the Oxford Union’s decision to host the caretaker Prime Minister of Pakistan was a mistake

Note: This article has been published anonymously at the request of the author, citing fears over their family’s safety in Pakistan.

On the 26th of September 2023, the Oxford Union hosted Mr Anwaar-ul-Haq Kakar, the Caretaker Prime Minister of Pakistan. As a student of Pakistani origin, it was frustrating and disappointing to see Kakar deciding to visit the United Kingdom and the Union choosing to host him. Before delving into the reasons for disappointment, a few words about Pakistan’s “caretaker” phenomenon and the ongoing political climate in the country.

Pakistan has a parliamentary form of government with legislative bodies at both the federal and provincial levels. The National Assembly (NA) represents the lower house of the federal bicameral legislature, and elections to the National Assembly decide the country’s Prime Minister. Similarly, at the provincial level, the Provincial Assembly (PA) constitutes the primary legislative body of the province. Upon dissolution of these assemblies, either due to completion of their tenure or on recommendation by the Prime Minister (NA) or Chief Minister (PA), a caretaker cabinet is appointed with the primary responsibility of ensuring free and fair elections and managing administrative affairs during the interim period. While the caretaker setup isn’t unique to Pakistan, the way it is operationalised in the country raises questions about why the Union decided to host Mr Kakar.

It is important to add that the provision of a caretaker cabinet was not in either of Pakistan’s three constitutions (1956, 1962, 1973). It was only added to the current constitution (1973) in 1985 when Pakistan’s then dictator, General Zia-ul-Haq, issued ‘The Revival of Constitution of 1973 Order (RCO)’ as a means of ensuring his grip on Parliamentary affairs. Since then, the caretaker setup has often been used for pre-poll manoeuvring and even postponing elections, thereby depriving people of the right to choose their elected representatives. For instance, in January 2023, the Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaaf (party in power) dissolved the Provincial Assembly in the Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces. Following this, a caretaker setup was put in place with elections due to be held in April 2023 as per the constitutionally mandated 90-day period. To date, elections haven’t been held and the caretaker setups in both provinces are running mini police states with wanton human rights abuses such as abduction and torture, including those of women and children, being an accepted norm. Such is the state of human rights abuses that a motion was presented in the British Parliament to highlight the democratic backsliding and the state of human rights in the country. Moreover, overseas Pakistanis have been holding protests in the United Kingdom, the United States and other Western countries to raise awareness about the ongoing situation in Pakistan, something those in Pakistan cannot do due to fear of arrest and harassment.

It is in this environment that Mr Kakar was appointed as the caretaker Prime Minister upon the dissolution of the National Assembly in August 2023. As per the constitution of Pakistan, elections were to be held no later than November 2023. Unfortunately, the news from within Pakistan is that elections will now be held in early 2024, with rumours abound regarding an ‘extended caretaker setup’. To make matters worse, in the months since he has been “in power”, Mr Kakar seems to be on public relations spree, perhaps as a means of enhancing his legitimacy in the eyes of international audiences. Earlier this month, he travelled to the United States to participate in the United Nations General Assembly – the first caretaker Prime Minister to do so. While in the States, he also engaged with think-tank community as well as American media. There, he made a comment stating that fair elections could be held without jailed members of the Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaaf, comments which the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) slammed as being ‘anti-democratic and ill-judged.’ Herein lies the first issue with the decision to host Kakar – as someone appointed with the sole task of ensuring free and fair elections, he seems to be running away from his only responsibility to do so. It is also interesting to note that amidst all these engagements, Kakar cancelled an interview with renowned international journalist and former Oxford student, Mehdi Hasan.   

Upon completing his engagements in the United States, instead of returning to Pakistan, Kakar decided to take a detour to the United Kingdom where he held meetings with members of the business community. There were also rumours that he would meet Pakistan’s convicted former Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif. Whether or not he met Sharif has not been confirmed. However, he did appear on the BBC’s HARDTalk where, when asked whether he was a military man, he responded by  stating that he “wasn’t being apologetic or trying to create an impression otherwise.” Finally, it is also on this trip that he decided to make the trip to Oxford to speak to the Oxford Union.

What is the purpose of all these PR exercises? And at what cost? Pakistan recently avoided defaulting on its sovereign liabilities by securing a last minute arrangement with the International Monetary Fund. In addition to the fiscal tightening required by the IMF, the people of Pakistan are also facing the impacts of an inflation rate that is nearing 30%. The net impact of this can be seen from the fact that over 40% of Pakistanis are now said to be living in poverty. How then does Mr Kakar and his caretaker cabinet, and perhaps Pakistan’s all-powerful military, justify these expenses at a time when the people of Pakistan are in such dire straits? An argument that has been made is that he is simply representing Pakistan at the international stage, something all countries need. That would be true if he was representative of the people of Pakistan. 

A more cynical take on the matter is that Kakar is being made to partake in all the activities that Pakistan’s jailed former Prime Minister Imran Khan undertook during his many tours of the US and the UK. Perhaps those in Pakistan’s corridors of power think that such exercises would give legitimacy to an extended caretaker setup and provide space for the military establishment to postpone elections indefinitely? If that is the intention, it certainly seems to be failing. Firstly, if sentiments on social media platforms, including the comments under the Oxford Union’s Instagram post announcing Kakar’s talk, are anything to go by, the people of Pakistan are enraged at both the cost to the exchequer as well as the fact that Kakar does not have legitimacy to represent the people of Pakistan internationally. Secondly, in a series of tweets about the event, Ayesha Siddiqa, one of the leading scholars on Pakistan’s military, remarked how Kakar’s pro-military responses and his overall demeanour exposed him as a “charlatan”

The first time most Pakistanis heard of his talk at the Union was after the Union announced it on its Instagram page. My question to members of the Union’s organising committee is that why did they decide to host an individual who, to many in Pakistan, is a puppet of the military establishment? Why would they give a platform, one that has a legitimising effect in post-colonial societies, to an individual who is an extension of a setup that has led to some of the worst cases of human rights abuses in Pakistan’s history. At the time of writing this piece, countless political prisoners, including female political activists, continue to be held in unknown locations across the country. This list includes the 71-year old Dr Yasmin Rashid who was lauded by the World Health Organisation for the role she played in Pakistan’s COVID-19 response. It also includes fashion designer Khadija Shah, who received a note of appreciation from the Duchess of Cambridge Kate Middleton for assisting the latter during her visit to Pakistan in 2019 and whose detention has been discussed by members of the US Congress. Kakar’s time as Caretaker Prime Minister has also witnessed the tragic demise of 9-year old Ammar Ibad who is believed to have developed neurological issues after witnessing law enforcement agencies repeatedly barge into his house and harass the elders of his family. While the Pakistani state did allow Ammar’s father to attend the funeral prayers, he was whisked away immediately afterwards and not even given the opportunity to bury his little boy. And finally, with the recent arrests of Usman Dar, Farrukh Habib (whose wife has also appealed to Amnesty International for assistance), and Sheikh Rashid, the Pakistani deep state appears to continue to disregard legal and judicial protocols, thereby trampling upon any remaining pretences of the existence of the rule of law in Pakistan. And in light of these – I once again repeat my question – did no one at the Oxford Union do any background research before inviting Kakar to give his rhetoric laden talk to students, most of whom were too afraid to speak their minds?
The Oxford Union prides itself in being the “last bastion of free speech.” It has always been my understanding that the freedom of speech applies to discussing, debating and critiquing ideas, individuals and ideologies. In that regard, I have always believed that nothing should be above critique. However,considering the examples cited in this piece, it is evident that the Union needs to have better due diligence, particularly when deciding to give its platform to officials and representatives of countries with a consistent record of grave human right abuses.

The Oxford Union was approached for comment on the issue.

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