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Farooq H Naek speaking to the media after the parliamentary committee's meeting. — File Photo

ISLAMABAD: Retired judges are now in control. After three days of talks, politicians in the parliamentary committee decided to give up and agreed to hand over the task of selecting the caretaker prime minister to retired judges working for the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP).

The eight-member bipartisan committee, at the end of their three days of deliberations on Friday, announced at a late evening press conference that the five-member ECP would now choose the man to oversee the general elections.

“I am announcing with heavy heart that for the first time in the history of the country politicians were given the opportunity to select a caretaker prime minister to hold free and fair elections, but we have failed,” PML-Q chief Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain who was representing the government on the committee, broke the news of stalemate.

Syed Khurshid Shah and Farooq H. Naek of the PPP also expressed disappointment for not reaching a consensus on the matter.

However, Sardar Mehtab Abbasi and Khawaja Saad Rafiq of the PML-N argued that it wasn’t a failure because the committee had tried its best but did not succeed and now, as envisaged in the constitution, the ECP would appoint a caretaker prime minister. “One shouldn’t call it a failure as we have honestly worked for the last three days and the issue will be resolved by the ECP,” said Mr Abbasi.

Both sides, however, pledged that they would wholeheartedly accept the ECP’s decision and would not get involved in mudslinging against any of the four nominees.

Under article 224-A of the constitution, the five-member ECP will pick one of the four nominees as the caretaker prime minister. The ECP will have until Sunday to announce its choice from among the names of Rasul Bakhsh Palijo, retired justice Nasir Aslam Zahid (PML-N nominees), retired justice Mir Hazar Khan Khoso and Dr Ishrat Hussain (PPP nominees).

Unlike the parliamentary committee in which both sides have four members each, the ECP has five members who either through consensus or by a majority vote will announce its decision.

Talking to Dawn, a senior member of the committee representing the PML-N said that by accepting Dr Ishrat Hussain, who was the top choice of the government, the opposition couldn’t afford to take the blame of appointing a caretaker prime minister who had worked under Gen Pervez Musharraf as State Bank governor. Similarly, Dr Hussain’s stints with the IMF and the World Bank, made his case weak in the eyes of the opposition party.

On the other side, a PPP member of the committee said it was impossible for the party to accept the nomination of Justice Zahid, not because he had been close to the PML-N leadership, but due to his anti-PPP track record.

He said President Asif Ali Zardari had been falsely implicated in the case of murder of his brother-in-law Murtaza Bhutto in 1996 and it was Justice Zahid on whose orders he had been sent to jail. Moreover, he said, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement was also not happy with Justice Zahid.

Earlier in the day, the committee met for about two hours. Before entering into a closed-door meeting for the third consecutive day its members once again expressed the hope that the issue of selection of caretaker prime minister would be resolved amicably. Speaking to a battery of media personnel, Chaudhry Hussain, in his trademark witty style, remarked Hum Sub Umeed Say Hain (We all are hopeful).

Khawaja Saad Rafiq of the PML-N again insisted that all members of the committee were known politicians and politics was synonymous with discussion, negotiations and dialogue, hence, “we should not be criticised taking our time”. He said until midnight the committee had time to give its final decision, and in case of disagreement, the ECP will pick one name.

Farooq Naek also gave positive vibes, saying: “Committee’s discussions are going spot on and hopefully it will select caretaker prime minister.”

Sardar Yaqoob Nasir of the PML-N, who presided over the meeting for the second day after Chaudhry Shujaat declined to do so expressing his displeasure for prolonging negotiations which he said should have been concluded on the very first day, was also hopeful.

Sources said that although both sides stuck to their nominations, the committee’s morning session had been held in a cordial atmosphere.

Since it was Friday, the committee broke for prayers just after 12 noon.

Soon after the prayers, Leader of Opposition in the now dissolved National Assembly Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, out of the blue, held a press conference outside the Parliament House where electronic media was on standby since Wednesday for the press talk of the committee members.

He once again undermined the role of the committee and said if it agreed on a name for caretaker prime minister it’s fine, otherwise whatever the ECP decided the PML-N would accept it.

Even before the committee started its proceedings on Wednesday, Chaudhry Nisar had predicted at a press conference in Lahore on Tuesday that it wouldn’t be able to decide on the name and eventually the ECP would have to play its role. Even within the party meetings, he had argued that the decision on caretaker prime minister should be taken at the level of the ECP.

Chaudhry Nisar’s mid-break press conference played a huge role in spoiling the mood of members of the committee representing government side.

When the committee resumed its proceedings at about 4.30pm, Khurshid Shah categorically asked the PML-N members if they really wanted purposeful discussion and had the mandate to take a definite decision, according to a participant of the meeting.

Embarrassed by Chaudhry’s Nisar press talk, the PML-N side sought time until 9pm to hold discussions with the party leadership. As a result, the meeting’s second session could continue only for 20 odd minutes. And when they returned late in the evening it was clear from their body language that the deadlock was going to persist.

“If the committee has to decide our leadership has refused to accept anybody other than Justice Zahid as caretaker prime minister,” said a PML-N member.

CONSTITUTIONAL LACUNA: Both sides, however, agreed that article 224-A of the constitution needed review because it didn’t provide enough mandate and space to the committee to make a final decision on caretaker prime minister.

While Mehtab Abbasi was of the opinion that the committee should be given more time for discussion, Farooq Naek said it should have the right to make changes in nominations.

At present the committee after its constitution could only take up four nominees -- two each of the prime minister and the leader of opposition -- and have three days to give its final decision.

Mr Naek was of the opinion that the committee should be given more powers.

Khawaja Saad Rafiq said: “I hope coming parliament will duly take up this constitutional hiccup to give more time and space to members of the committee for the selection of caretaker prime minister.”