Former chief justice Nasir-ul-Mulk has taken the oath as Pakistan’s caretaker prime minister. Photo: AFP

Tasked with holding free, fair and transparent elections by late July, former chief justice Nasir-ul-Mulk became Pakistan’s caretaker prime minister on Friday.

Mulk, who served as the Supreme Court’s chief justice in 2014, was jointly nominated by leader of the opposition Khurshid Shah and the outgoing government of prime minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi.

The nomination was announced in a joint press conference by Shah, Abbasi and National Assembly Speaker Ayaz Sadiq on Monday, where the former chief justice was described as someone with a “clear past” and “political neutrality.”

While the caretaker prime minister was agreed upon, the caretaker chief ministers of Pakistan’s four provinces are yet to be finalized.

Controversy in Punjab

The nomination of the caretaker chief minister of Punjab province has especially generated controversy after former bureaucrat Nasir Mahmood Khosa’s name had been announced, only for the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party to withdraw support for the nomination.

Punjab, the country’s most populous province, is considered the gateway to the federal government, with 141 of the 272 directly elected National Assembly seats coming from Punjab.

It was only last week that the Punjab caretaker chief minister for the 2013 elections, Najam Sethi, the current chairman of the Pakistan Cricket Board, was cleared of corruption allegations, with the PTI alleging that Sethi had helped “fix” 35 of the provincial constituencies for the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N).

After withdrawing support for Nasir Khosa, who has himself recused from the position as well, PTI has announced retired Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa inspector general Nasir Durrani and political scientist Hasan Askari Rizvi as its nominees.

Rizvi, the author of The Military and Politics in Pakistan: 1947-1997, says that the upcoming election will be won and lost in Punjab.

“The main political fight is in Punjab – whoever controls Punjab controls Pakistan. Let’s hope whoever is finalized as the caretaker chief minister does a good job,” he told Asia Times.

Rizvi maintained that the very fact that the country needs a caretaker government shows the lack of trust among political leaders.

“The idea of a non-partisan government is deemed impossible in Pakistan, because whichever party is in power wants to use state power to its advantage,” he said. “There is no democratic culture in Pakistan – whichever party loses cries foul and says the elections were rigged.”

The Nawaz Sharif narrative

While the tussle over finalizing the Punjab caretaker chief minister continues, many are surprised by the caretaker PM being a former judge.

This is owing to the PML-N’s pre-election narrative, spearheaded by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, who was disqualified by the Supreme Court for failing to declare a receivable salary on his nomination papers during the Panama Papers trial.

Sharif, who has since been disqualified from leading the party named after himself, has alleged that the military and judiciary are uniting to undermine parliamentary supremacy.

“First of all, one needs to understand that anyone has a right to disagree with a court judgment – otherwise there won’t be any appeals,” veteran Supreme Court lawyer and constitutional expert Abid Hassan Minto said.

“Secondly, one can understand where Nawaz Sharif is coming from [regarding his allegations on the institutions] considering the developments of the past couple of years and the decisions that have been taken against him,” Minto said.

Minto maintained, however, that Nasir-ul-Mulk’s nomination as caretaker PM shouldn’t be seen as a contradiction of the narrative.

“The caretaker set-up is a purely political question, and should not be transformed into a legal one. And [Nasir-ul-Mulk’s] nomination doesn’t undo Nawaz Sharif’s stance,” he said.

Talking about the man himself, Minto maintained that the former chief justice is a neutral figure, but claimed that his position is ceremonial.

“He is a neutral figure, but of course, he won’t actually have any authority to fix any of the systematic problems in how elections are conducted. His is a token role which he’ll fulfill.”

Fears of rigging

In case the PML-N and PTI fail to reach a consensus over the caretaker chief minister for Punjab, the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) will have to name one.

Former ECP secretary Kunwar Dilshad said the commission itself wasn’t any less politicized. “Even the creation of the ECP, through a parliamentary committee, is a political process. Hence there isn’t much difference between the ECP nominating the caretaker set-up or the political leadership doing it,” he said.

“Regardless of the caretaker set-up, the bureaucracy remains the same, and they are the ones who have the need to oblige the outgoing government because of the favors that have been bestowed upon them,” he said. “We should follow the Indian model and transfer the bureaucrats to other provinces during the elections. Also it is a good idea to conduct the elections in different stages.”

Hasan Askari Rizvi says the rigging itself is of various kinds.

“Some of the rigging is procedural – mistakes of procedure [of conducting elections] are interpreted as rigging. On other occasions there is actual forgery,” he said.

“A lot of the factors [resulting in the rigging] can be reduced, but it can’t be completely eliminated. In a country that has such economic inequality, ensuring the proper usage of vote can’t be 100% ensured.”

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