By Asif Shahzad
ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – Pakistan’s election commission has questioned the neutrality of the country’s caretaker government tasked with holding national elections, saying it appears to be aligned with the opponents of jailed former Prime Minister Imran Khan.
The caretaker government, which took over last month on the five year expiry of parliament, is meant to ensure impartiality in the run up to the election, but Khan’s continued incarceration and ban from contesting elections has raised concerns.
“It is a general perception that the caretaker government is a continuation of the previous government,” says a letter seen by Reuters written by the Election Commission to the office of caretaker Prime Minister Anwar ul Haq Kakar.
Kakar, whose party was an ally in the outgoing anti-Khan coalition government, took over from Shehbaz Sharif who comes from Khan’s biggest rival party, Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), which with the alliance of nearly a dozen parties removed Khan from power.
The letter, dated Wednesday, is a rare official rebuke of the government. Election results are rarely accepted across the board in Pakistan and perceptions of bias could cast a further shadow over the credibility of the process.
An almost certain delay in the national election, which is due in November, has stoked more political uncertainty amid the worst economic crisis in the nation of 241 million.
No date has so far been given for the voting, and analysts fear that the caretaker government led by Kakar, who comes from a pro-military political party, could remain in power for a longer period.
Caretaker Information Minister Murtaza Solangi dispelled the suggestion of bias.
“We have no favourite horses in this race,” he told Reuters in a message on Thursday, saying his government will assist the commission in providing a level-playing field to all parties.
Asked about the commission’s suggestions he said, the “Prime Minister and myself have not uttered a word against the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party and Imran Khan after assuming our new role.”
Election Commission spokesman Haroon Khan did not respond.
The letter came within hours of Kakar inducting in his cabinet a longtime loyalist of former three-time Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, Khan’s main opponent. It said that “due care” should be exercised to avoid people of “known political allegiance” being added to the government.
The cabinet also has other loyalists to Sharif’s party and its allies, as well as vocal critics of Khan, some of whom say they were victimised during his rule from 2018 to 2022.
Khan, ousted in April 2022 in a parliament vote of confidence, blames the military for his removal after he fell out with the generals, who mostly decide who will rule.
(Reporting by Asif Shahzad; Editing by Alexandra Hudson)