Pakistan has chosen former chief justice Nasirul Mulk as caretaker PM. The July 25 general elections will be a popularity test for former PM Sharif, who challenged the military's dominance in the political sphere.
Nasirul Mulk's appointment was announced by opposition leader Khrusheed Shah and Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi at a press conference in Islamabad on Monday.
The interim government will be tasked with holding the general elections on July 25. Mulk will appoint his cabinet after the incumbent government's five-year constitutional term ends on May 31.
"His [Mulk's] role as a caretaker PM will be in favor of the country and the democratic process," Prime Minister Abbasi said.
Opposition leader Shah told media that Mulk's name was chosen on "merit" and with consensus between the government and the opposition Pakistan People's Party, headed by former president Asif Ali Zardari.
"We are happy that the government was able to complete its five-year term," Shah said.
Mulk "enjoys a good reputation" among Pakistan's political circles, Raza Ahmad Rumi, a US-based Pakistani journalist, told Reuters news agency.
"He's seen as a neutral judge in the past without any political affiliation," Rumi said. "In a way it's a good development."
The polling for the National Assembly (lower house of parliament) and provincial assemblies will be held on the same day – July 25, 2018 – state-run Radio Pakistan announced Saturday.
Last week, the Election Commission of Pakistan proposed to President Mamnoon Hussain that the 2018 general elections be held between July 25 and 27.
Zahid Gishkori, an Islamabad-based journalist, told DW that "all speculation and rumors about a delay in the general election have been proven incorrect."
"The elections will strengthen democracy in Pakistan," he said.
Poor civilian-military relations
But the growing rift between ex-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Pakistan's powerful army has cast a dark pall over the upcoming elections.
Earlier this month, Sharif's statement on the involvement of Pakistan in the 2008 terror attacks in the Indian city of Mumbai strained the already poor civilian-military relations in the South Asian country even further. Despite widespread criticism, Sharif has stuck to his guns and refused to retract his contentious remarks.
The comments put the former PM in the crosshairs of pro-military politicians and television commentators, with most of them calling for Sharif to be charged with treason.
The issue reveals the serious friction and deep-seated distrust between those that support the Muslim-majority country's democratically elected civilian government and others that side with the army.
But the ruling Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz Group, PML-N) is hopeful that its rift with the military won't affect its performance in the July 25 vote.
"PML-N will emerge as a majority party [in the upcoming election] and form the next government, given that elections are held in a fair, free and transparent manner," Senator Asif Kirmani, told DW.
But many in Pakistan believe the military would not like Sharif's party to emerge victorious in the next election.
"It is very good news for all Pakistanis and democrats that elections will be held in July," I. A. Rehman, a prominent human rights activist, told DW. "But now a huge responsibility has been assigned to the election commission to organize free and fair elections, which is pivotal for true democracy," he added.
Ruling from the shadows
In 2013, for the first time in its history, the country witnessed a smooth transition of power from one civilian government to another. This triggered hopes that the country had managed to put an end to its military coup-filled past, and was on track to becoming a true democracy.
But the manner in which Sharif was recently expelled from his premiership sparked suspicion that the army was behind his ouster. Sharif, who has been Pakistan's prime minister three times, had to step down ostensibly because his family was implicated in a corruption case. However, many believe he has been targeted because of his willingness to lock horns with the army, and assert civilian authority over the military.
In addition to losing his position as premier, Sharif has been barred from leading his party and also from contesting any election ever. Their attempt to banish Sharif from Pakistani politics, some observers say, shows the institutional power of the nation's military, indicating how the generals no longer need to undertake a coup d'etat and impose martial law in order to exercise power. Instead, they have mastered the art of ruling the country from the shadows.
Against this backdrop, experts point out that there are fears over whether the upcoming elections will be free and fair. "If the elections are not free and fair then it would not be accepted as an election because it should be transparent," said PML-N's Zafar ul Haq.
The elections will be crucial in determining Pakistan's future trajectory, as the country finds itself confronting a challenging security landscape. The United States, under President Donald Trump, has also been tough on Islamabad, expressing its frustration over Pakistan's failure to target terrorist networks in the region.
Seeking China's support
At the start of this year, Washington also decided to suspend security assistance to Islamabad. This has pushed Pakistan to increasingly turn toward China for much-needed financial and diplomatic support.
China, on the other hand, has been Pakistan's close regional ally for decades and has invested heavily in the country in recent years. Currently, Beijing is spearheading a nearly $60 billion (€50 billion) China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which is part of its gigantic Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). China also wants to minimize India's influence in the region by supporting Pakistan, a policy that analysts don't think will drastically change in the near future.
However, experts argue that economic prosperity requires political stability. And increased political tensions mean more political instability, which would increase interference from the military establishment in political and election-related matters, Senator Akram Dashti told DW.
"The army would not leave any stone unturned to keep Sharif out. In short, the military establishment does not accept the supremacy of the civilian political parties in Pakistan because they want to call the shots in the country," said Dashti.