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Pakistan caretaker leader plan triggers debate as elections draw near

Talks are being held to agree on a caretaker head who will look after the interests of the two major ruling alliance partners..

July 27, 2023 / 07:19 PM IST
Pakistan PM Shehbaz Sharif to step down before term ends next month

Pakistan PM Shehbaz Sharif to step down before term ends next month

The choice of a leader for a caretaker administration in Pakistan until the year-end parliamentary election has sparked a major debate in the country. Breaking with tradition, the National Democratic Movement alliance headed by Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif plans to nominate a politician close to him.

The term of the current Pakistani National Assembly (parliament) expires on August 14, but the term of the government ends on August 12. If the government stays until its term ends, elections have to be held within 60 days of the dissolution of the House. However, if the government seeks to dissolve it early, the election can be held within 90 days.

Caretaker head

In the past, eminent personalities such as a judge or economists were asked to head the caretaker administration to ensure a non-partisan approach and create a level playing field for all participants in the election.

There are indications that Sharif plans to bring finance minister Ishaq Dar as the caretaker leader. Dar is a close confidant of the Sharifs. If he heads the administration, the Pakistan Muslim League (PML) that leads the alliance is likely to end up as the largest political party in the forthcoming election.

Though his name has been floated to test the waters, it has sparked strong opposition from within the PML and among other members of the ruling alliance.

Nawaz Sharif, the three-time former prime minister of Pakistan and PML supremo, met the leader of the other major coalition partner—Pakistan People’s Party co-chairman Asif Ali Zardari in Dubai to thrash out the issue.

The first consultation yielded no result. But another round of talks is being held to agree on a candidate to head the caretaker administration who will look after both their interests.

Nawaz Sharif factor

Nawaz Sharif was an extremely popular leader with a strong base in Punjab—politically the most important province in Pakistan as it accounts for more than 50 percent of the 614 parliamentary seats, especially the crucial 342 seats in the lower house.

His government was dismissed after the Supreme Court convicted him on corruption charges in 2017. After spending a brief period in jail, Sharif was allowed to travel to London for treatment and he has lived there in self-exile since.

On June 27, a law was passed in Pakistan that will allow Sharif to seek a review of the earlier verdict against him. The move is widely seen as paving the way for his return before the parliamentary elections. Sharif’s return will rejuvenate the PML cadre, though it is not clear how it will impact the electorate.

Imran Khan most popular

After Sharif’s dismissal, the Imran Khan-led Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party came to power with a strong mandate and the promise to build a new Pakistan’—free of corruption and equal opportunity for all.

But after a severe economic crisis and his inability to renew US support for Pakistan, his backers in the army establishment who helped him to come to power lost confidence. Imran lashed out against the army and the US after his government lost a no-confidence vote in April 2022 and was dismissed.

He continued to draw large crowds at rallies and kept up his image of an honest politician, especially among the youth. But subsequently, a series of corruption cases were initiated against him.

On May 9, his supporters turned violent in the wake of his arrest and indulged in large-scale arson in major cities. In an unprecedented move, they also attacked army installations and vandalised dead soldiers’ statues.

This seemed to be the turning point in Imran Khan’s political career as he not only lost the sympathy of the people but provoked the army establishment to decimate his party and marginalise him politically.

Making Imran irrelevant

The army also joined in the effort of his political opponents to make Imran politically irrelevant in Pakistan’s politics. The army encouraged senior members of his party to leave and form a new outfit, like the Istehkam Pakistan Party that his erstwhile backer, sugar baron Jahangir Khan Tareen, floated in Lahore last month.

The international community led by the US, which kept a keen eye on Bangladesh to ensure free and fair parliamentary elections in January, have maintained a studied silence on the developments in Pakistan.

It appears the US administration will not be unhappy if Imran Khan is kept out of the political stage in Pakistan for some time.

“Unfortunately, the elections, which are supposed to strengthen the democratic process and provide stability, may result in the country plunging deeper into chaos,” Pakistani political commentator Zahid Hussain observed.

Keeping out Imran Khan, one of the most popular political leaders, from the forthcoming election in Pakistan does not bode well for the country’s future.

Pranay Sharma
Pranay Sharma

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