ISLAMABAD — Pakistan’s prime minister on Sunday plunged the country into political limbo, accusing the United States of trying to oust him and annulling a no-confidence vote he threatened to lose. He then ordered the dissolution of the National Assembly so that new elections could be held.
Imran Khan’s moves appeared to trigger a constitutional crisis: Pakistan’s Supreme Court must rule on their legality, but it was adjourned until Monday and gave no indication of when the matter would be settled. The Muslim month of fasting, Ramadan, has just begun in Pakistan.
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The dramatic episode was the latest in an escalating row between Khan and Parliament after defectors within his own party and a minor coalition partner joined the opposition in an attempt to oust him from power. On Sunday it was unclear where the powerful military, which has directly ruled Pakistan for more than half of its 75-year history, stood in the fight.
The former cricket star-turned-conservative Islamic leader tried to justify the measures by accusing the United States of trying to overthrow his government. His Information Minister, Fawad Chaudhry, accused the opposition of collusion with a foreign power when he successfully petitioned the Deputy Speaker of Parliament to throw out the vote.
The opposition, which accuses Khan of mismanaging the economy, came to parliament to vote out Khan and says they have a simple majority of 172 votes to do so in the 342-seat assembly.
Khan, who was not in parliament on Sunday, announced on national television that he would table the dissolution motion, which President Arif Alvi later elaborated on.
“I ask people to prepare for the next elections. Thank God a conspiracy to overthrow the government failed,” Khan said in his address. Under Pakistan’s constitution, an interim government including the opposition will now lead the country towards elections to be held within 90 days.
In the capital, Islamabad, security forces braced for the worst and locked down much of the city as a defiant Khan called on his supporters to hold nationwide demonstrations. Huge metal containers blocked roads and entrances to the capital’s diplomatic enclave, as well as parliament and other sensitive government institutions.
Khan has accused the opposition of colluding with the United States to unseat him and said America wants him to reconsider his foreign policy decisions, which often favor China and Russia. Khan was also a staunch opponent of the American War on Terror and Pakistan’s partnership with Washington in that war.
Khan has circulated a memo he insists provides evidence Washington conspired with the Pakistani opposition to oust him because America “wants me personally out.” He offered no concrete evidence of US interference.
Political chaos also spread to Punjab, the country’s largest province, which is set to elect a new prime minister. Khan’s favorite candidate faced a tough challenge, and his opponents claimed they had enough votes to field an ally of their own. After a scuffle between lawmakers, the provincial assembly was adjourned without a vote until April 6.
Pakistan’s main opposition parties – a mosaic of ideologies ranging from the left to the radically religious – have been rallying for Khan’s ouster almost since his election in 2018. Then his victory was mired in controversy and widespread accusations that the army helped his Pakistani Tehreek-e -Insaf party to victory.
Asfandyar Mir, a senior expert at the Washington-based US Institute of Peace, said the military’s involvement in the 2018 polls undermined Khan’s legitimacy from the start.
“The movement against Imran Khan’s government is intrinsically linked to his controversial rise to power in the 2018 election, which was rigged by the army to force Khan over the line,” Mir said. “That really undermined the legitimacy of the election exercise and created the reason for the current turmoil.”