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Pakistan Names Caretaker Prime Minister, Paving Way for Elections

The Pakistani government named a caretaker prime minister on Saturday, a move that kicks off preparations for the country’s next general elections and comes amid a year of political turmoil.

The close ties that the new leader, Anwar-ul-Haq Kakar, has to the country’s powerful military reinforces its dominance over Pakistan’s politics, sending a clear message: After a year of political turmoil that challenged the authority of military leaders, they have a firm hand on the wheel once more.

“He is undoubtedly a choice of the establishment,” Khalid Mahmood Rasool, a political analyst and newspaper columnist, said, referring to the military establishment.

The term of the outgoing government, led by Shehbaz Sharif, who is also close to the military, ended on Thursday. In Pakistan, once a government’s term ends, a caretaker must be established to oversee the next general elections.

Mr. Kakar’s appointment comes amid growing speculation that elections — once expected to be held this fall — are likely to be delayed until next spring at the earliest. It also follows a dramatic week in Pakistani politics.

Last Saturday, a former prime minister, Imran Khan, was arrested and sentenced to three years in prison after being found guilty in a corruption case. The arrest was a climactic twist in the yearlong political showdown between the former leader, who was ousted in April 2022 in a vote of no confidence, and the military, which he accused of orchestrating his downfall. Military leaders deny those claims.

In the year since Mr. Khan fell out with the military and left office, he proved that he was still a force to be reckoned with in Pakistani politics. In rallies and marches across the country, he drew thousands of his supporters to the streets, where he assailed military leaders for the hard grip on power they held behind the scenes of the struggling democracy.

The military responded with a chilling crackdown on his supporters that has all but hollowed out his party in recent months — a campaign that culminated with the imprisonment of Mr. Khan last week and showed that even vigorous public defiance can’t dethrone Pakistan’s military.

With his conviction, Mr. Khan has been barred from running for office for five years, officials said last week. Mr. Khan is currently appealing his sentence in a heated legal battle that will determine his — and the country’s — political future. He is facing a slew of other court cases that he has characterized as little more than political revenge.

Mr. Kakar will be sworn in as the interim prime minister within a week, officials said.

Typically, elections must held within 60 to 90 days of the dissolution of Parliament. But there are growing doubts that the country will go to the polls by that deadline.

Last week, officials with the outgoing government announced that new electoral boundaries based on the most recent census must be drawn before the country could hold its next general elections. That process is expected to take six months or more.

On Tuesday, when asked in a local television news segment if elections would be held by the end of the year, the outgoing interior minister, Rana Sanaullah, said: “In a straightforward answer: no.”

Delaying the elections would benefit the military establishment, analysts say, by giving more time for the country’s heated political climate to cool off before its 241 million citizens head to the polls.

“If the election is delayed for an extended period, it could lead to political blowback that might complicate both the political and economic dimensions,” Mr. Rasool said. “The fate of Imran Khan will significantly impact the evolving political atmosphere and public support.”

The legacy of Mr. Sharif, the outgoing prime minister and the younger brother of Nawaz Sharif, who served as prime minister three times, appears mixed, analysts said.

Mr. Sharif claimed that his biggest achievement had been to save the country from economic default by successfully negotiating a $3 billion bailout from the International Monetary Fund. Still, he leaves in his wake a struggling economy, high inflation and destruction from devastating floods last year.

He also faced a tough balancing act in trying to keep his disparate political coalition intact. Mr. Sharif’s image was tarnished by his engaging in questionable legal and administrative maneuvers to resolve his family’s and allies’ court cases, analysts said.

Critics say that his government failed to safeguard civil liberties, facilitated the military’s influence over politics, and allowed a heavy-handed crackdown against Mr. Khan’s party, jailing its key leaders and thousands of its workers.

The interim prime minister, Mr. Kakar, is from one of the country’s least populous provinces, Balochistan, and enjoys good support across the country’s political divide. Analysts say Mr. Kakar’s political and religious views lean toward the center-right, contributing to his credibility within religious circles and religio-political parties.

“He is a seasoned political activist, is media savvy with excellent public relations skills,” said Salman Javed, a director of the Islamabad-based Pak Afghan Youth Forum. “He has worked with almost every party in some capacity.”

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