By Asif Shahzad
(Reuters) - Pakistan's caretaker government under interim Prime Minister Anwaar-ul-Haq Kakar will oversee a general election after the dissolution of the lower house of parliament.
The election is meant to be held within 90 days, by November, but uncertainty looms over the date as the nation grapples with constitutional, political and economic crises.
Kakar and his cabinet will run the government until a national election is held and the winner can secure a parliamentary majority and select a new prime minister.
Here are some key questions on the situation and how the next few months are expected to play out.
WILL THE ELECTIONS BE DELAYED?
Kakar's caretaker government must hold elections within 90 days. However, after the outgoing government approved a new census in its final days, new electoral boundaries must be drawn up by the Election Commission.
The exercise of drawing fresh boundaries for hundreds of federal and provincial constituencies in a country of 241 million people may take six months or more, according to a former commission official.
The Election Commission has to announce how long it will take to complete the exercise, which may also involve litigation by candidates over the new formations of the constituencies, and, based on that, give an election date.
WHAT IS THE ROLE OF THE CARETAKER GOVERNMENT?
Caretakers are usually limited to overseeing elections, but Kakar's set-up will be the most empowered in Pakistan's history thanks to recent legislation that allows it to make policy decisions on economic matters.
The move is ostensibly aimed at keeping on track a nine-month $3 billion International Monetary Fund (IMF) bailout secured in June. At least one of three programme reviews falls during the caretaker period, and more if elections are delayed.
The IMF has already secured consensus from all political parties over policy direction.
WHAT IS THE MILITARY'S ROLE?
The military still has a huge role behind the scenes. It has ruled Pakistan directly for over three decades of the country's 76-year existence, and wields extraordinary political power.
Kakar's party, the Balochistan Awami Party, is widely considered to be close to the military.
Political analysts fear that if the caretaker set-up stretches beyond its constitutional tenure, a prolonged period without an elected government would allow the military to consolidate control.
WILL IMRAN KHAN CONTEST THE POLLS?
As it stands, former prime minister Imran Khan, the main opposition leader, cannot fight this election.
Khan is currently jailed for three years after being convicted on graft charges and is barred from contesting any elections for five years.
His party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), won the last general election in 2018, and he became prime minister until his ouster in a no-confidence vote in 2022.
WHO ARE THE MAIN CONTENDERS?
There are three main contenders to lead the next government: Khan's PTI, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) of Shehbaz Sharif and the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP).
With Khan in jail and barred from the polls, his PTI will hope to exploit supporters' sympathy and anger and repeat its 2018 victory. But amidst a continuing standoff with the military, PTI's prospects hinge on a detente with the generals, which looks unlikely.
Three-time premier Nawaz Sharif, the brother of the outgoing prime minister and whose PML-N was the senior partner in the outgoing coalition government, is seeking a return from exile. But with a corruption conviction against him still in force, Shehbaz remains a front runner to return to power.
Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, 34, the young chairman of the PPP and son of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, is another key candidate. He made waves locally and in foreign capitals in his first government job as foreign minister in the outgoing government, and is widely seen as a future premier.
CHALLENGES IN THE LEAD-UP TO THE POLLS
Economic stabilisation is the top challenge with the $350 billion economy on a narrow recovery path after the IMF bailout averted a sovereign debt default. Economic reforms have already fuelled historic inflation and interest rates.
Political uncertainty is a factor after Khan's jailing and ban. There was no violence following his arrest, unlike in May when his supporters went on the rampage, but his continued detention will raise questions over the credibility of the election.
Constitutional and legal questions are bound to come up if the elections are delayed beyond 90 days, with an active Supreme Court known to step in to interpret constitutional questions.
(Reporting by Asif Shahzad; Editing by Gibran Peshimam, Raju Gopalakrishnan and Giles Elgood)