World News

As Pakistan Election Nears, Caretaker Prime Minister Is Named

Posted May 28, 2018 7:10 p.m. EDT

ISLAMABAD — A former Pakistani Supreme Court chief justice has been chosen as the caretaker prime minister until late July, when Pakistan is to hold general elections.

The appointment of the former justice, Nasir ul-Mulk, as the head of a neutral, interim government was announced at a joint new conference in Islamabad on Monday by Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi and Syed Khurshid Shah, the opposition leader.

Mulk is likely to be sworn in on Friday.

The election marks the second democratic transition in Pakistan’s history, though it comes amid months of political tumult and civil-military tensions.

“With the selection of the former chief justice as caretaker prime minister, Pakistan’s democracy is showing signs of a pulse, albeit a faint one,” said Arif Rafiq, a political analyst and a nonresident fellow at the Middle East Institute. “The major political parties are continuing a recent tradition of selecting by consensus an impartial figure to oversee the election process, thereby increasing the odds that it will be free, fair and credible.”

The five-year term of the governing political party, Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, ends Thursday. Last week, President Mamnoon Hussain announced that the general elections for the national assembly and four provincial ones would be held July 25.

Mulk enjoys a politically neutral reputation. His tenure as chief justice in 2014 was not marred by the accusations of judicial overreach that plagued some of the other Supreme Court leaders.

“I am hopeful that God will give him the passion and courage to successfully conduct free, fair and impartial elections,” Shah, the opposition leader, said at the news conference.

Shah said Mulk’s name had been chosen from a list of four candidates. Other opposition politicians also welcomed the nomination.

The biggest challenge for Mulk will be to ensure free and fair elections at a time of heightened tensions between leading politicians. Some have accused the military of denying the political party of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif a level playing field.

The last general elections, in 2013, brought Sharif to power with an overwhelming majority. But he had to fight for legitimacy in the face of broad protests led by Imran Khan, an opposition politician.

Khan, a popular former cricket player, accused Sharif’s party of having rigged the elections. He staged a protest sit-in in Islamabad that lasted months.

Sharif was also forced to fend off charges of corruption that arose from revelations made in the Panama Papers, which were files leaked from an offshore law firm. In July, the Supreme Court, in a controversial decision, removed him from office. Sharif, who vehemently denies any financial wrongdoing, is on trial on corruption charges.

The Supreme Court barred Sharif from holding public office for life, but he is hoping that if his party, Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, retains control in the summer elections, he can find a way back into power.

When Sharif took power in 2013, the country’s economy was in a nose dive, and power failures were crippling day-to-day life. Despite the political upheavals, Sharif’s government managed to complete several power and infrastructure projects, showcasing them as his claim to win yet another electoral victory.

But it is the grueling confrontation with the powerful military and the judiciary that poses the biggest challenge to Sharif’s return to power.

The military denies any meddling in politics. Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, the army chief, has publicly stated that the army remains committed to democracy.

Five years ago, terrorism was one of the main concerns during the election campaign and several political parties, like the Pakistan Peoples Party and Awami National Party, could not campaign openly amid threats by the Taliban.

The militant threat has since diminished, but there are concerns now that hard-line Islamists are being encouraged to take part in politics, which will give them greater legitimacy.

Khan, Sharif’s political nemesis, appears to feel confident that his time to win has finally arrived. In recent weeks, there has been a series of defections from Sharif’s political party as dozens of politicians have left to join Khan’s party.

“With the combination of curbs on free speech and political defections from Sharif’s party,” Rafiq, the political analyst said, “there’s a belief that the elections are being prefigured in some way by a military-judicial combine. This will cast a shadow over the elections.”