ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Imran Khan, the former international cricket star-turned-politician who oversaw a new era in Pakistan’s foreign policy that distanced the country from the United States, was ousted as prime minister early Sunday after winning a vote of no confidence in parliament had lost.
The vote, which came amid rising inflation and a rift between Mr Khan’s government and the military, capped a political crisis that has engulfed the country for weeks and ended in a parliamentary session that dragged on into the wee hours . Pakistan remains in a state of turmoil as it heads towards a snap election season in the coming months.
Pakistan, a nuclear-armed nation with the second largest Muslim population in the world, has struggled with instability and military coups since its founding 75 years ago. While no prime minister in Pakistan has ever completed a full five-year term, Mr Khan is the first to be ousted in a no-confidence vote.
Mr Khan’s motion to impeach passed by 174 votes, two more than the simple majority required.
Analysts expect lawmakers to choose opposition leader Shehbaz Sharif, a member of a Pakistani political dynasty, as interim prime minister until the next general election, expected in October. Mr Khan is also expected to stand as a candidate in this election.
Parliament voting began just before midnight on Saturday after a chaotic day of political wrangling in the capital Islamabad when Mr Khan’s allies appeared to be trying to delay a decision – stoking fears the military could intervene.
Late Saturday night, with the two political factions locked in an impasse, the country’s powerful army chief met with Mr Khan.
The Supreme Court also signaled that it would open at midnight should the court need to intervene. Police officers and prison vans waited in front of the parliament building to prevent violence.
At 11:45 p.m., MPs from Mr Khan’s political coalition stormed out of the National Assembly Hall in protest at the no-confidence vote.
Opposition lawmakers then proceeded with the no-confidence vote.
Mr Khan has repeatedly said the opposition moves against him were part of a US-backed plot to oust him from power and he called on his supporters to protest on Sunday.
“Your future is at stake,” Mr Khan said in a televised address on Friday night. “Unless you stand up to protect our country’s sovereignty, we will continue to remain submissive.” He added, “The nation must rise up together to save Pakistan.”
Mr Khan, 69, had turned his sporting fame into a populist political career, promising to rid the country of endemic corruption, get the ailing economy back on track and build a “new Pakistan” that he described as an Islamist welfare state.
But economic realities, including huge national debt and three straight years of double-digit inflation, thwarted his plans and undermined his popularity. Fighting corruption proved easier said than done. Its shift away from the West towards China and Russia polarized.
And, perhaps most importantly, he appeared to have lost the support of the country’s powerful military in a dispute over his leadership.
This paved the way for a coalition of opposition parties tabled a motion of no confidence last month. But in a stunning attempt to block the vote, he and his allies dissolved parliament just before it was due to take place on April 3.
The Supreme Court on Thursday said Mr Khan’s move was unconstitutional and ordered the vote to continue on Saturday.
The public rebuke of his leadership by the country’s courts and lawmakers, including some of his allies, has cost him significant political capital and eroded the aura of irrepressibility he had maintained for years.
But in a country where ousted political leaders have been known to return in Acts Two and even Three, Mr Khan has shown no signs of backing down and most analysts expect he will be running in the next election.
“I don’t think Imran is out of Pakistani politics,” said Ayesha Siddiqa, a political scientist at SOAS University of London. “He’s already in a better position, he’s completely distracted by inflation, by the economy, by this foreign conspiracy issue, and that’s serving him well.”
Born to a wealthy family in Lahore, Mr Khan first came to prominence as an international cricket star in the late 1970s, becoming the face of the sport at a time when cricketers from the former British Empire, their former colonial masters, were beginning to take off to beat regularly. Mr Khan helped guide Pakistan to winning the 1992 Cricket World Cup – the country’s greatest sporting achievement.
His success on the cricket field and his upper class upbringing gave him a life of privilege and glamour. In the 1980s, Mr Khan was an integral part of London’s fashion scene and gained a reputation as a playboy.
In 1996 he turned to politics, founded his own party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, presented himself as a reformer and promised an alternative to Pakistan’s established political dynasties.
Despite his mass popularity and appeal, he struggled to gain a political foothold for over a decade. He was ridiculed for his political ambitions and for the glaring contradictions between his lavish lifestyle and his efforts to reposition himself as a devout Muslim who identified with the poor and disowned his English-speaking peers.
But by 2011, Mr Khan appeared to be finding his political footing. His rallies began to attract hundreds of thousands of urban middle-class Pakistanis and educated young people who felt angered by the system and were fueled by his populist anti-corruption message and his criticism of the United States.
In 2018 he was elected prime minister – a victory many of his rivals attributed to a backroom deal with the military. Politicians from other parties described a campaign of coercion and intimidation by the security forces, which effectively narrowed the voting field, and sent the message that opposition to Mr Khan was strongly discouraged. Military officials have denied these allegations, as have Mr Khan and his aides.
But analysts said he also promised too much and backed incoherent, often contradictory policies: he supported a deregulated, free-market economy, but also a welfare state. He publicly opposed Islamic militancy, but his government and military establishment provided a safe haven for the Taliban in north-west Pakistan.
In a desperate bid to stabilize the economy, he turned to the International Monetary Fund for a $6 billion bailout in 2019, a move many saw as a betrayal of his campaign pledge to never accept foreign loans and aid.
As criticism of his leadership mounted, Mr Khan’s government waged a growing crackdown on dissent. Opposition parties have criticized his anti-corruption efforts as one-sided and accused him of going after his opponents with all his might while ignoring allegations floating around his cabinet members and close friends. However, unlike many of his predecessors, he himself was not accused of corruption.
Human rights groups have criticized his government for its crackdown on the media. Several leading journalists known to be critical of Mr Khan have lost their jobs; others were intimidated, arrested and threatened in organized social media campaigns Human Rights Watch.
Still, his supporters have defended his record, which includes handing out government subsidies, building shelters and soup kitchens for the poor, and providing healthcare to low- and middle-income households.
During his tenure, Pakistan weathered the coronavirus pandemic relatively well, sparing the devastation wrought in some other parts of the world despite early troubles with an overwhelmed and underserved health system. Mr Khan attributed the success to a well-coordinated national effort, bolstered by military aid.
But his foreign policy decisions became a point of contention.
In search of more independence from the West, he broke away from the so-called war on terrorism. Last June he said Pakistan would “absolutely not” allow the CIA to use bases inside Pakistan for counter-terrorism operations in Afghanistan. After the Taliban seized power in Afghanistan last year, before American troops and officials fully withdrew from the country, he hailed Afghans for “breaking the chains of slavery.”
But the critical blow to his leadership came last year after Pakistan’s military leadership appeared to withdraw its support, undermining the political stability he had enjoyed for most of his tenure.
In recent months, the military establishment has loosened its grip on opposition parties, the analysis says, paving the way for the no-confidence motion. Days before last Sunday’s vote was due to take place, Mr Khan appeared to have lost a majority in Parliament and faced calls for his resignation.
But he remained defiant, accusing his opponents of being pawns in a US-led plot to remove him and claiming that a communiqué from a former Pakistani ambassador to the United States contained evidence of a conspiracy. He called on Pakistanis to resist the “forces of evil” and exhorted them to stand up to his opponents, whom he called “slaves of America.”
Shehbaz Sharif is to take over as interim prime minister before the next parliamentary elections. Mr Sharif is the younger brother of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and former Prime Minister of Punjab, the country’s most populous and prosperous province.
The interim government he is expected to lead will inherit significant challenges, from rising inflation to an increasingly polarized political climate that could spark unrest in the streets.
“This crisis has posed serious problems for Pakistan in terms of the economy, political polarization and our foreign policy,” said Ijaz Khan, former chair of the International Relations Department at the University of Peshawar. “Bringing the country out of this will be a serious challenge for any future government.”