Pakistan’s embattled prime minister, Imran Khan, will seek early elections after he sidestepped a vote of no confidence challenge and alleged that a conspiracy to topple his government had failed.
The deputy speaker of Pakistan’s parliament threw out the opposition parties’ no-confidence resolution and abruptly ended the session on Sunday. Minutes later, Khan went on national television to say he would ask Pakistan’s president to dissolve parliament and call early elections.
The developments came after the information minister, Fawad Chaudhry, accused the opposition of colluding with a “foreign power” to stage “regime change”.
“I ask people to prepare for the next elections. Thank God, a conspiracy to topple the government has failed,” Khan said in his address.
The opposition, which said it would stage a sit-in protest in parliament, said the deputy speaker’s ruling throwing out the no-confidence vote was illegal and vowed to go to Pakistan’s supreme court.
The opposition arrived in parliament ready to vote Khan out of power, needing a simple majority of 172 votes in the 342-seat chamber to unseat the prime minister. Khan’s small but key coalition partners along with 17 of his own party members joined the opposition to oust him.
The vote of no confidence had been expected sometime after parliament convened on Sunday but parliamentary rules allow for three to seven days of debate. The opposition had said it had the numbers for an immediate vote.
Giant metal containers blocked roads and entrances to the diplomatic enclave, parliament and other sensitive government installations in the capital, Islamabad. A defiant Khan called for supporters to stage demonstrations countrywide to protest against the vote.
Khan has accused the opposition of secretly planning with the US to unseat him, saying the White House wants him gone because of his foreign policy choices that often favour China and Russia. Khan has also been a vocal opponent of Washington’s “war on terror” and Pakistan’s partnership with the US over it.
Khan has circulated a memo that he insists provides proof that Washington conspired with Pakistan’s opposition to unseat him because America wants “me, personally, gone … and everything would be forgiven”.
A loss for Khan in the vote of no confidence would have given his opponents the opportunity to form a new government and rule until the next elections, which had been scheduled for next year.
Residents of Pakistan’s largest province, Punjab, were set to vote on Sunday for a new chief minister. Khan’s choice for the role faced a tough challenge and his opponents claimed they had enough votes to install their own.
With 60% of Pakistan’s 220 million people living in Punjab, it is considered the most powerful of the country’s four provinces. On Sunday, the government announced the dismissal of the provincial governor, whose role is largely ceremonial and is chosen by the federal government, but which further deepened the country’s political turmoil.
Pakistan’s main opposition parties, whose ideologies span the spectrum from left to right to radically religious, have been working to oust Khan almost since he was elected in 2018.
Khan’s win was mired in controversy amid widespread accusations that Pakistan’s powerful army helped his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, or Movement for Justice, party to victory.
Asfandyar Mir, a senior expert with the Washington-based US Institute of Peace, said the military’s involvement in the 2018 ballot undermined Khan’s legitimacy from the outset.
“The movement against Imran Khan’s government is inseparable from his controversial rise to power in the 2018 election, which was manipulated by the army to push Khan over the line,” said Mir. “That really undermined the legitimacy of the electoral exercise and created the grounds for the current turmoil.”
Pakistan’s military has directly ruled the country for more than half of its 75-year history, overthrowing successive democratically elected governments. For the remainder of that time, it has manipulated elected governments from the sidelines.
The opposition has also accused Khan of economic mismanagement, blaming him for high inflation. At the same time, Khan’s government is credited with maintaining a foreign reserve account of $18bn (£14bn) and bringing in a record $29bn last year from overseas Pakistanis.
Khan’s anti-corruption reputation is credited with encouraging expatriate Pakistanis to send money home. His government has also received international praise for its handling of the Covid-19 crisis and implementing “smart lockdowns” rather than countrywide shutdowns. As a result, several of Pakistan’s key industries, such as construction, have survived.
Khan’s leadership style has often been criticised as confrontational.
“Khan’s biggest failing has been his insistence on remaining a partisan leader to the bitter end,” said Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia programme at the Washington-based Wilson Center.
“He hasn’t been willing to extend a hand across the aisle to his rivals,” said Kugelman. “He’s remained stubborn and unwilling to make important compromises. As a result, he’s burned too many bridges at a moment when he badly needs all the help he can get.”
Khan’s insistence that there is US involvement in attempts to oust him exploits a deep-seated mistrust among many in Pakistan of US intentions, particularly following September 11, said Mir.
Washington has often berated Pakistan for doing too little to fight Islamist militants even as thousands of Pakistanis have died in militant attacks and the army has lost more than 5,000 soldiers. Pakistan has been criticised for aiding Taliban insurgents while also being asked to bring them to the peace table.
“The fact that it has such easy traction in Pakistan speaks to some of the damage US foreign policy has done in the post 9/11 era in general and in Pakistan in particular,” said Mir. “There is a reservoir of anti-American sentiment in the country, which can be instrumentalised easily by politicians like Khan.”