Pakistan’s Parliament has been dissolved, technically putting the country on course for a national election, but a thick pall of uncertainty surrounds its political future.
Everything is up in the air, from whether the elections – otherwise scheduled for October – will be held on time, to the role of the caretaker government.
According to the constitution, if Parliament completes its term, elections have to be held within the next 60 days.
If, however, the lower house – National Assembly – or provincial assemblies are dissolved even a single day before that, polls must be conducted within the next 90 days.
This Parliament would have completed its term on Aug. 12, five years after its term began under former Prime Minister Imran Khan, who was ousted in a no-trust vote and has recently been jailed and barred from politics.
Will elections be on time?
Speculation is rife in Pakistan that the elections will be postponed – some say for as long as two years – although Sharif and the coalition government that took over from Khan have stressed that they do not want a delay.
A set of recent laws with particularly far-reaching impacts has fueled the rumors.
In a first for Pakistan, the Parliament last month gave the caretaker prime minister the power to take administrative and financial decisions, mainly for the continuity of a $3 billion financial assistance agreement with the International Monetary Fund.
The caretaker premier, who is appointed after consultation between the outgoing prime minister and opposition leader, is otherwise supposed to run day-to-day affairs and cannot take any administrative decisions, except for those related to elections.
A second law passed expanded the role of the powerful army and intelligence agencies.
Another legislation related to amendments in the country’s Official Secrets Act proposed blanket powers for intelligence agencies, giving them the power to raid any place and detain any citizen on mere suspicion.
However, the intelligence agencies must still get warrants from a magistrate.
Interestingly, senators from Khan’s opposition Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party also supported the legislation, which is yet to be enacted as it has been challenged in court.
According to one section, the army can carry out activities related to “national development” and the advancement of national or strategic interests.
The legislation, which also proposes up to five years in jail for anyone who discloses sensitive information about national security or the military, was passed less than two weeks before Sharif’s government bowed out.
Sensing a possible delay, the upper house, or Senate, passed a resolution on Wednesday urging the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) to ensure that elections are held within the timeframe stipulated in the constitution.
Census and caretaker setup
The Council of Common Interests, a constitutional body that comprises the prime minister and the chief ministers of all provinces, last week approved the controversial results of a new nationwide census, making it almost certain that elections will not be held on schedule.
The hasty approval means the ECP will need at least four additional months to notify new constituencies in the country in accordance with the latest census, according to Kanwar Dilshad, a former ECP secretary.
In this case, the elections cannot be held before February next year.
Top officials, including the defense and interior ministers, have also indicated that the elections could be delayed due to what they called “constitutional compulsions.”
Then there is the issue of the caretaker setup, which is yet to be finalized.
Abdul Hafeez Shaikh, a former finance minister, and ex-Foreign Secretary Jalil Abbas Jilani are being touted as the top contenders for caretaker prime minister.
Shaikh, who served as finance minister during previous tenures of former military ruler Gen. Pervez Musharraf, the Pakistan People’s Party and also under Khan, arrived in the country from the US on Sunday. He remains a favorite because of his close ties with international financial institutions.
Economy remains critical
Sajjad Mir, a Lahore-based political analyst, said there is a possibility that elections will be put off for one or two years.
“It’s not politics but the economy that will decide the fate of the elections, and the appointment of the caretaker prime minister will make things clearer,” Mir told Anadolu, referring to the strong chances of Shaikh taking the post.
The recent legislation and financial agreements with China, Saudi Arabia and the UAE clearly show that “elections won’t be held without putting the country’s fragile economy on the right track,” he said.
According to Mir, a non-political caretaker government has more room than an elected one to take “unpopular” economic decisions.
Endorsing his fears about a lengthy delay, Tauseef Ahmad Khan, a Karachi-based political commentator, said any postponement “will be very unfortunate.”
“It will worsen Pakistan’s political and economic crises simultaneously,” he said.