The presidential election, first set for August 6, which was the day selected by the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP), not the government, has been pulled back to July 30. One result of the original date was that the government appealed against it, asking that the election be pre-poned, so that the members expected to go to the Haram for Umra could do so after casting their vote, and so that the members could observe Aitekaaf, a period of seclusion in the last 10 days of Ramazan when those observing it do not perform such worldly tasks like casting a vote. The PML-N appealed to the Election Commission unsuccessfully, but obtained the date it wanted when it appealed to the Supreme Court.

That the election is not the first to take place under the 1973 Constitution is, perhaps, a truism. However, the present holder of the office, the seventh under the constitution, will be the first to leave on the completion of his term. Previous vacancies have been the result of death or resignation. Therefore, Chief Election Commissioners have had to conduct elections at short notice; something they have done ably, but this time around the CEC is acting as the constitution prescribes when a presidential term is to end.

Thus, the ECP decided against the government request, which was based on a duplication of dates. While the election is to be held on the day corresponding to 27 Ramazan, it will only be 27 Ramazan in Pakistan. In the Arab world, including the Haram Sharif, it will thus be 28 Ramazan. Since Lailatul Qadr - the holiest Night in the holiest Month - precedes the day itself, the Lailatul Qadr falls in Pakistan the night before the election, for the droves of PML-N parliamentarians said by the party to intend to spend this night in the Haram, Lailatul Qadr would be the night before that. Thus, it should be possible, but not convenient, to worship all night on Lailatul Qadr in the Haram, return to Pakistan on the next day, vote early, and go back in time to celebrate Eid in Mecca, which is the usual practice of those who pass Lailatul Qadr in the Haram. Of course, this would mean an extra visit, with the attendant via formalities, but then, who said being a parliamentarian was meant to be easy, or cheap?

One effect will be that Asif Zardari will find himself in the awkward position of having a successor elected, but not to take office for a month.

It would be stretching matters to call him a lame duck, for even in the fullness of power, there is precious little a President can do. When Asif Zardari was elected to office five years ago, the office had certain important reserve powers, which meant that the President had a nexus with the armed forces but was once again made just a figurehead, dependent in all his functions on the advice of the government.

The presidency in Pakistan has had a chequered history, mainly because all military rulers made it a vehicle for themselves. While the first two assumed the office as soon as they took office, Generals Ziaul Haq and Pervez Musharraf waited a while before ousting their elected predecessors. Zia took over as President after Fazal Elahi Chaudhry’s term expired in August 1978, while Musharraf ousted Rafiq Tarar before going to Agra, in 2001, though Tarar had been elected only in 1998, and thus still had about half his term to run.

Presidents thus fill the function of the monarch, and do not rule, but reign. The President is the person at whom the organs of state come together with him as their head. He is not just the head of the judiciary, but also the appointing authority of superior court judges, though the actual appointments come through the judicial commission. He heads the legislature, not just because he can address Parliament, but because he signs the Acts it passes into law, and can advise reconsideration. He is also the head of the Executive, but is bound to act according to its advice. Because of this provision, the government of the day has control of not just the executive, but also the legislature. It also controlled the judiciary, but a recent struggle had established its independence.

The President was reduced to a figurehead because the constitution was supposed to be prime ministerial, but because he is the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces, he represents an important constitutional continuity, and is thus important to the military whenever it carries out a coup. The position of the incumbent, Asif Zardari, where as head of the PPP he also guided the government, is thus anomalous. When elected, he had important reserve powers, but they were taken away by the 19th Amendment, one of the architects of which is Raza Rabbani the PPP candidate this time, President Zardari having decided not to run a useless battle for re-election.

The choice of the PML-N has fallen on Mamnoon Hussain, whose only previous experience of public office has been a brief Governorship of Sindh, a post to which he was named to a general questioning as to who he was. Aside from the fact he was Governor of Sindh for a few months in 1999, before the coup that overthrew him along with Mian Nawaz Sharif, he had never held public office. However, he is, like the Prime Minister, a businessman, owning a textile business, and graduating in 1965 from the Institute of Business Administration in 1965.

He was born in Agra in 1940. It cannot be a coincidence that MQM supremo Altaf Hussain, though born in Karachi, is also the son of immigrants from Agra. Mamnoon would be the third Mohajir to become President, the first two being Iskander Mirza and Pervez Musharraf. Mamnoon is the first civilian Mohajir, for though Iskander Mirza was not a military ruler, he was a retired major general.

Elected Presidents have held either the finance or foreign affairs portfolio, with Farooq Leghari having held both briefly. In that respect, the PML-N had a candidate more qualified than Mamnoon in Sartaj Aziz, but moving him now would have meant a very big gap in the Foreign Affairs Department. It bears mentioning that Sartaj, at 84, would have been the oldest person elected to the office, though Mamnoon at 73 is almost the same age as Ghulam Ishaq Khan, who was only months older when he contested the 1988 election. This contrasts with the man he is succeeding, Asif Zadari, who turned 58 only just before the election.

Apart from the PPP, the Tehrik-i-Insaf too has put up a candidate, Mr Justice (retd) Wajihuddin Ahmad, who was the lawyers’ candidate in the 2007 election against Musharraf. The PML-N had put up Mr Justice (retd) Saeeduz Zaman Siddiqui in 2008, thereby maintaining a tradition, now abandoned, of backing a former Supreme Court judge. However, the presidential election has more or less ensured that the ECP will remember 2013 was the year when it conducted at all levels, local council, national and provincial, and presidential. And of course, it will be memorable for Mamnoon Hussain, who, probably, never imagined, when he came from Agra to Pakistan, that he would become its President.

The writer is a veteran journalist and founding member as well as executive editor of The Nation.