The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Pakistan’s prime minister skirts effort to oust him, orders Parliament dissolved for elections

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan attends a military parade to mark Pakistan National Day, in Islamabad, Pakistan, on March 23. (Anjum Naveed/AP)

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Pakistan’s embattled prime minister, Imran Khan, outmaneuvered his political opponents Sunday as they attempted to oust him from power through a vote of no confidence. Within two hours, Parliament had been dissolved at Khan’s request so the country can prepare for new elections.

Khan orchestrated an abrupt suspension of the expected no-confidence vote by the legislature’s acting speaker, a member of his party, then immediately announced on live TV that new elections would be held. He had said that running for office again would be a “second option” for his future if the vote could not be stopped.

As an uproar spread through the legislative chamber, furious opposition leaders accused Khan of treason and declared they would immediately go to the Supreme Court to demand that the vote be held as planned. By late afternoon, however, the court had taken no action to challenge the vote cancellation and the shuttering of Parliament, which Pakistan’s president ordered to plan for early elections.

As of Saturday, opposition leaders had gathered enough supporting votes among legislators to oust Khan from power as he struggled to manage spiraling inflation and other domestic problems. But Khan, 69, a charismatic former cricket star who won office in 2018 after campaigning to reform a corrupt political system and bring justice to all Pakistanis, blamed the effort to remove him on a foreign conspiracy that he claimed was backed by the United States.

On Saturday, Khan had vowed to resist the no-confidence measure, hinting at a surprise move to come, and called on supporters to hold peaceful protests across the country.

“I congratulate the nation. The speaker has rejected the effort at regime change that was planned by outsiders,” Khan said in his brief televised statement Sunday, looking exhausted but sounding upbeat. “The nation will not allow this conspiracy to succeed. The assembly will be dissolved and we will go back to the people. We will prepare for new elections and you will decide the future of Pakistan.”

In recent weeks, as he was fighting for his political life, Khan has repeatedly alleged that the U.S. administration was behind a plot to remove him from power, citing a private diplomatic cable that suggested Washington would be happier with new leaders in Pakistan. But the cable has not been made public, and a spokesman for the State Department has said there is “no truth” to the accusations.

The controversy has plunged Pakistan’s troubled democratic system into chaos, pitting its civilian institutions against each other and turning the legislative process into a brawl. It has also placed new strains on Pakistan’s long but uneasy relations with the United States, which have veered from Cold War and anti-terrorism cooperation to mutual blame over meddling in Afghanistan. Khan’s government is now much closer to China, its most important economic and political ally.

Khan, who came to power as a liberal domestic reformer, has since refashioned himself as a devout Muslim and ardent nationalist. In recent speeches, tinged with messianic fervor, he depicted his struggle for political survival as a “war for the future of our country” and he said Pakistan — a nuclear power of 220 million people — must choose between being a proud, independent nation or submitting like “slaves” to foreign interests.

Having floundered in efforts to shore up the economy and implement promised reforms, Khan has been attempting to refocus popular support on his grander, more spiritual vision for the nation — a theme likely to dominate his expected electoral campaign. He told one audience that his fight to remain in power was a conflict between “good and evil.”

Pakistan’s powerful military establishment responded quickly to the political upheaval, saying it would stay out of the crisis entirely. The chief military spokesman, Maj. Gen. Babar Iftikhar, told Hum News television channel Sunday afternoon that “the army has nothing to do with what happened today. What happened today was a pure political process.” The army, he added, “stands with the law and the constitution.”

The military has a long history of interfering with domestic and electoral politics in Pakistan, and has seized power several times since the country was founded in 1947. Khan’s relationship with military officials has cooled since they tacitly backed his candidacy in 2018. But the current army leaders pledged to remain neutral in civilian politics, even as Khan battled to remain in office.

The top political opposition leaders, who had expected to remove Khan from power by the day’s end Sunday, were left sputtering in anger and frustration. Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, leader of the Pakistan People’s Party, said it was “totally illegal” for the vote to be suspended. “The prime minister has lost his majority and he should go.”

Shahbaz Sharif, senior leader of the Pakistan Muslim League, demanded that Khan and the speaker be found guilty of treason for violating the constitution. Sharif and Zardari, longtime rivals from wealthy political dynasties, joined forces with several other parties to try to bring down Khan. Both men have been accused of financial crimes by Khan’s government and are currently free on bail.

It was unclear whether and when the Supreme Court would act on opposition demands to reauthorize the no-confidence vote, let alone reverse the suspension of Parliament. For now, in a show of defiance, opposition members remained gathered in the legislative building into the afternoon, holding discussions at their desks with the lights off.

Khan, while condemning his longtime opponents as traitors and thieves, expressed particular contempt for legislators from his own party who jumped ship recently and joined the opposition as his fortunes sagged, calling them “turncoats” who were “sold like goats” at a fair.

Opportunistic party-switching is common in Pakistan, and observers view it as a permanent obstacle to developing a stable and mature democracy.

Some analysts described the crisis as a new example of why Pakistan’s democratic system has been both a farce and a failure — a game of musical chairs rather than a solid institution. “[This] is the latest episode in Pakistan’s political soap opera,” columnist Zahid Hussain wrote in the Dawn newspaper recently. Yet some of Khan’s former loyalists say he failed to deliver on an array of concrete promises, including eradicating corruption, reforming government and reducing poverty.

“I am extremely disappointed because Mr. Imran Khan, despite his tall claims, failed in every field,” said Malik Ahmed Hussain Dehar, a member of Parliament from Khan’s party. He said Khan was trying to “take credit for an independent foreign policy, but we are internationally isolated. People are suffering from high prices and no one cares. This government is just a tale of failures.”

Shaiq Hussain in Islamabad contributed to this report.

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