Explainer: What does dissolution of National Assembly mean and what happens next?

As the PML-N-led coalition's tenure comes to a close, here is everything you need to need to know about what lies ahead in Pakistan's political arena.
Published August 8, 2023

It was during the humdrum distribution of laptops to students in late July that Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif first made an unexpected announcement: his government’s term, the premier said, would end early the following month.

“Next month our government will complete its tenure, [but] we will leave before the completion of our tenure and an interim government will come in,” PM Shehbaz had said.

He later confirmed that date to be August 9 (today).

The five-year term of the incumbent National Assembly — the lower house of the Parliament — commenced on August 12, 2018, and thus it could have technically remained active till August 12, 2023. However, the prime minister’s decision means the assembly will now dissolve prematurely, albeit by a mere three days.

It should be noted that the dissolution of the National Assembly will not have a bearing on the future of the Senate — the upper house of the Parliament. Any bills passed only by the National Assembly till now — and not by the Senate — will stand invalid and be discarded. Those approved by both houses have already been forwarded to the president and will be automatically approved even if the president does not sign them in 10 days.

What the dissolution of the National Assembly entails

Dissolution, according to the Oxford Dictionary, is defined as the “act of officially ending a marriage, a business agreement or a parliament”. It signifies a formal closure or termination, often to make way for a new beginning.

Drawing this concept into Pakistan’s political arena, the term takes on a constitutionally defined path. The National Assembly, as outlined in Article 52 of the Constitution, undergoes dissolution upon completing its five-year term, counting from the day of its first session.

 A snapshot of Article 52 of the Constitution.
A snapshot of Article 52 of the Constitution.

For instance, the incumbent assembly was sworn in on August 13, 2018, marking the start of its term. This structured dissolution is more than a mere formality — it is a democratic mechanism that provides citizens with the opportunity every five years to cast their votes and elect a new government.

That said, the assembly can also be dissolved early if the prime minister recommends the president to do so.

According to Article 58 of the Constitution, if the president fails to dissolve the assembly within 48 hours after the PM has recommended so, the assembly automatically stands dissolved.

Once the assembly dissolves, all the cabinet members cease to hold office.

There is one caveat though. The prime minister cannot advise the president to dissolve the assembly if no-confidence proceedings have begun against the former. The president can also, at his discretion, dissolve the assembly if, in the aforementioned instance, no other National Assembly member has the confidence of the majority of the members.

Interestingly, the National Assembly has only reached the end of its term twice, once in 2013 and again in 2018.

How was it dissolved?

President Arif Alvi approved the summary for dissolving the National Assembly at midnight on August 10 at outgoing Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s advice, marking an end to the government’s tenure.

The notification for the dissolution of the assembly was issued by the Aiwan-i-Sadr, which said the NA was dissolved under Article 58 of the Constitution.

Even if President Alvi had failed to sign the dissolution advice, the assembly would have stood dissolved on the night of August 11, hours before it would have completed its tenure the next day.

The dissolution will break the two-time spree of democratic governments completing their five-year terms, as they did in 2013 and 2018.

What’s the role of the ECP?

With the National Assembly dissolved, it is the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) that must then spring into action.

The ECP is an autonomous constitutional body in charge of organising and conducting elections. According to Article 224 of the Constitution, the ECP must conduct general elections within 60 days after the assembly has completed its five-year term, or within 90 days in the case of an early dissolution.

While the ECP is obligated to ensure fair elections, it also has the power to halt the polls or declare them void within 60 days of the results under certain circumstances, such as severe illegalities or violations of the election act.

What does the interim govt do?

In between the dissolution of the assembly and fresh elections, an interim or caretaker government is appointed.

The caretaker cabinet has one primary job: to create a conducive environment for free and fair elections in the country.

Apart from that, the caretaker government is also responsible for executing the routine functions of the government and making sure that Pakistan does not come to a standstill in the time between the dissolution of parliament and a new government being sworn in.

The caretaker setup has to be impartial and not have any political affiliations so that it does not try to interfere in the election process or sway it in a certain direction.

As defined in Chapter XIV of the Elections Act 2017

  1. A caretaker government shall:
  • perform its functions to attend to day-to-day matters which are necessary to run the affairs of the government;
  • assist the Commission to hold elections in accordance with law;
  • restrict itself to activities that are routine, non-controversial and urgent, in the public interest and reversible by the future government elected after the elections
  • and be impartial to every person and political party
  1. The caretaker government shall not:
  • take major policy decisions except on urgent matters;
  • take any decision or make a policy that may have an effect or pre-empt the exercise of authority by the future elected government;
  • enter into a major contract or undertaking if it is detrimental to public interest;
  • enter into major international negotiation with any foreign country or international agency or sign or ratify any international binding instrument except in an exceptional case;
  • make promotions or major appointments of public officials but may make acting or short-term appointments in public interest;
  • transfer public officials unless it is considered expedient and after approval of the Commission;
  • attempt to influence the elections or do or cause to be done anything which may, in any manner, influence or adversely affect the free and fair elections
  1. Providing statements of assets and liabilities:

The prime minister, chief minister or a minister or any other members of the caretaker government shall, within three days from the date of assumption of office, submit to the ECP a statement of assets and liabilities — including assets and liabilities of their spouse and dependent children — as on the preceding 30th day of June via Form B, and the ECP shall publish the statement of assets and liabilities in the official Gazette.

Who appoints the interim set-up?

This caretaker cabinet is appointed by the president, or the governor (in case of a provincial assembly). But this choice is made in collaboration with the outgoing prime minister and the leader of the opposition in the outgoing National Assembly.

Once consensus is reached, a caretaker chief minister is chosen by the governor in collaboration with the outgoing chief minister and the leader of the opposition in the outgoing provincial assembly. (In this case, the Sindh and Balochistan assemblies as Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa already have interim governments in place).

In case there’s a disagreement between the outgoing PM or CM and the respective leaders of the opposition over the choice of caretaker candidates, Article 224 (A) of the Constitution comes to the rescue.

The law states that if the outgoing PM and the leader of the opposition cannot agree on who to appoint as the caretaker PM within three days of the National Assembly’s dissolution, they each forward two candidates to a committee.

This committee is formed by the speaker of the National Assembly and consists of eight members from the outgoing National Assembly, the Senate, or both, and has equal representation from the treasury (government) and the opposition benches — chosen by the PM and the leader of the opposition respectively.

Similarly, if the outgoing CM and the leader of the opposition in the provincial assembly can’t agree on the appointment of the caretaker CM within three days of the assembly’s dissolution, they each propose two nominees.

These nominees are sent to a committee formed by the speaker of the provincial assembly. The panel consists of six members from the outgoing provincial assembly, with equal representation from the treasury and the opposition.

The committees formed under these conditions are tasked with finalising the names of the caretaker PM or caretaker CM within three days of receiving the nominations.

However, if the committee is unable to make a decision within the stipulated period, the names of the nominees are forwarded to the ECP. The commission then has two days to make the final decision.

During this process, the incumbent PM and CM continue in their roles until the caretaker PM and CM are appointed.

It is important to note that those who serve in the caretaker cabinets, including the interim PM and CMs, along with their immediate family members, are not eligible to run in the immediate following elections for these assemblies.

Can the caretaker govt stay longer than expected?

According to Article 224(1) of the Constitution, “A general election to the National Assembly or a provincial assembly shall be held within a period of 60 days immediately following the day on which the term of the assembly is due to expire, unless the Assembly has been sooner dissolved”.

In case of early dissolution, the ECP is bound to hold the general elections “within a period of ninety days after the dissolution”, according to Article 224(2) of the Constitution.

However, after the Council of Common Interests approved the 2023 census results, a Dawn report cited a senior ECP official as saying that the commission was “now legally bound to go for fresh delimitation, which would take at least four months”.

“It’s a constitutional requirement and we will have to do it,” he had remarked. “The details will be worked out by the commission in a meeting, which would be held after they received the official notification.”

The report quoted another official as saying that the ECP will also be required to update electoral rolls and take other related steps, indicating that the entire exercise may be postponed until March or April of the next year.

Recent statements by incumbent Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah and Defence Minister Khawaja Asif have also consolidated the likelihood that polls will be delayed beyond the 90-day constitutional timeframe.

Furthermore, only last month, a joint sitting of the parliament passed a bill to amend the Elections Act 2017 to allow the interim set-up to take major policy decisions regarding multilateral and bilateral projects.

Under the slightly altered version of the amendment to Section 230 of the Elections Act, a provision was added after sub-section 2, which reads, “Provided that sub-sections (1) and (2) shall not apply where the caretaker government has to take actions or decisions regarding existing bilateral or multilateral agreements or the projects already initiated under the Public Private Partnership Authority Act, 2017 (VIII of 2017), the Inter-Governmental Commercial Transactions Act, 2022 (XXX of 2022) and the Privatisation Commission Ordinance, 2000 (LII of 2000)”.

The two sub-sections mentioned in the amendment restricted the role of caretakers to attend to day-to-day affairs and bar them from taking any controversial decisions that cannot be reversed by the next elected government.

It’s worth mentioning that despite the proposed amendments, including several changes to the voting process, financial aspect and the caretaker setup’s powers, they do not directly allow the 90-day time period to be extended.

The amendments to the Elections Act coupled with the need for new delimitations as well as the government’s confidence over dissolving the assembly on Aug 9 give a collective impression that the caretaker set-up may have to look after the country’s reigns for a bit longer than they are technically supposed to.

However, according to lawyer Abdul Moiz Jaferii, “Nothing allows the ECP to delay or extend the caretaker mandate beyond 90 days.”

He told Dawn.com that the “duty to process delimitation as per the new census is secondary to the primary duty to hold elections on time”. He further said that the ECP “cannot legally extend the caretaker set-up on the premise of delimitation”.

Likewise, lawyer Basil Nabi Malik explained that an act of Parliament could not override the mandate of the Constitution of Pakistan, and therefore, no legislation to extend the caretaker government’s tenure could take precedence over the Constitution.

Providing clarity on the situation if a “financial emergency” was declared during the caretaker government under Article 235 of the Constitution, Jaferii said the law clearly specifies that it is limited to the “federation directing the provinces to restrict expenses”. “Who will declare an economic emergency when there’s no government?” he asked.

Under the said Article, “the executive authority of the federation shall extend to the giving of directions to any province to observe such principles of financial propriety as may be specified in the directions”.

Malik said on the matter that if an economic or financial emergency was declared at a time when the National Assembly stood dissolved, the proclamation should continue in force for a period of three months.

“If a general election is not held before the expiration of this period, it shall cease to be in effect at the expiration of the period unless it has earlier been approved by a resolution of the Senate,” he added.