Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan could be ruling on borrowed time. Photo: AFP / Aamir Qureshi

PESHAWAR – Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan faces the biggest political test of his tenure in a no-confidence motion tabled this month by 11 opposition parties. Splits in Khan’s coalition could mean his government’s days are numbered if at least 14 estranged ruling party members vote against the premier on March 27.

The ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) alliance nominally has a majority of 179 members in the 341-member lower house National Assembly. The combined opposition parties, including the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) nine-party alliance, Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and Awami National Party (ANP), now sit at 162.

The opposition thus needs 10 lower house defections to hit the 172 votes needed at the no-confidence motion to bring down Khan’s four-year-old government and force new elections. Those defections could conceivably come from PTI’s three coalition partners, which currently have 17 members in the lower house National Assembly.

Legally, Khan must dissolve the National Assembly on August 13, 2023 and hold new elections by October 12 that same year.

On March 8, the PDM, PPP and ANP jointly submitted a no-confidence motion against Khan with the National Assembly’s Secretariat. In their submission, the opposition parties questioned the legitimacy of Khan’s 2018 election win, which they claim was rigged, and that his economic policies are leading the nation to ruin with rising inflation, growing debts, diminishing reserves and faltering trade balance.

At the same time, some analysts have speculated the opposition was given a “green signal” by “powerful circles” to table the “no-trust” motion as Khan’s relations with the powerful and autonomous military have faltered in recent months after previously being viewed as working hand-in-glove in a “hybrid” regime.   

In response, a defiant Khan has launched a massive public mobilization campaign to name and shame ruling PTI lawmakers he claims have “sold” their loyalties to become turncoats. Geopolitics are adding to the intrigue as Khan and the military appear to have divergent views on how to handle the nation’s great power relations.   

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan in a file photo. Image: Facebook

In recent meetings, Khan has advanced a conspiratorial narrative claiming the European Union and US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) have teamed up to dislodge his government because of his “neutral” foreign policy, which he says is at odds with the West’s strategic interests in the region.  

Khan has publicly crossed swords with the EU for not siding overtly with its anti-Russia policies in the wake of Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine. It was lost on few observers that the Pakistani leader was physically in Russia on the day President Vladimir Putin launched his devastating and polarizing assault.

Khan has also come under fire in Washington over Pakistan’s alleged role in facilitating the Taliban’s lightning seizure of power last August, which contributed to America’s ignominious withdrawal from the nation. US lawmakers have recommended imposing sanctions on Pakistan for supporting the Taliban’s war win.

More dangerously for his political survival, Khan is openly crossing swords with the Pakistan military.  

In one clear signal, on March 19, Khan praised India for having a “pro-people independent foreign policy” in a speech at Malakand, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Khan’s statement was a shot across the bow of the army, which conducts its own anti-India foreign policy, often independent of Khan’s civilian government. 

“I haven’t bowed before anyone and will not let my nation bow either. Like India, my foreign policy will also focus on the people of Pakistan,” Khan said.

Political analysts say Khan’s diatribes against the US and EU and stated desire to emulate India could aim to force the military’s hand and re-establish his credentials as an independent, democratic leader, which has been in question ever since taking power.

He’s playing with certain fire. Khan openly clashed with the top brass last October when incumbent army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa ordered the transfer of Lieutenant General Faiz Hameed, chief of Pakistan’s Inter-service Intelligence (ISI) spy agency.

Pakistan’s Army Chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa. Photo: Pakistan Inter-Services Public Relations / Handout

Hameed’s agency is widely believed to have influenced the 2018 election result that catapulted Khan to power and has helped to keep his fragile coalition intact over the last three years.

There is widespread speculation that Khan will nominate Hameed to replace Bajwa when his second tenure in the position ends in November this year. But history shows meddling in the military’s internal politics is always a dangerous game for civilian politicians.

Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia program and South Asia senior associate at the Wilson Center, tweeted, “The Pakistani government’s suggestion that the opposition is being sponsored/influenced by the CIA may not go over well with the security establishment. There are likely some differences between how the civilian leadership & military leadership view current relations with the US.”

Allegations of military-influenced political machinations against Khan may or may not have merit. On March 17, four alienated legislators of the ruling PTI party affirmed they would vote in the no-confidence motion in “accordance with their conscience.”

They openly accused Khan of going back on his promises to end inflation, corruption and lawlessness, and carped that he gave more clout and attention to non-elected “special advisers” to the detriment of veteran PTI politicians. 

Raja Riaz, one of the four disgruntled PTI parliamentarians, told Asia Times that several PTI lawmakers had already quietly committed to support the opposition and vote against Khan at the March 27 no-confidence motion.

“I have so far a list of 53 members of the National Assembly, which include eight federal ministers and ministers of state, who are ready to quit the government and join the opposition rank,” Riaz claimed. “We will give a big surprise,” he added.

PTI member Ramesh Kumar has claimed that as many as 33 members of the National Assembly including three federal ministers had effectively quit the ruling party, which if true means Khan no longer has the majority he needs to rule. In his opinion, Khan should resign even before the no-confidence motion is held.

While that won’t likely happen, Pakistan is clearly headed towards new political turmoil as both government and opposition parties mobilize their supporters for a showdown at the same venue, date and time as where the no-confidence vote will be held.

The PTI has advised its lawmakers to join its “biggest rally” ever on March 27 at Islamabad’s D-Chowk, located in front of Parliament House. In a TV talk show, Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry claimed that one million people would participate in the rally coincident with the vote.

Supporters of the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), gather during a political rally in Peshawar on November 22, 2020. Photo: AFP / Abdul Majeed

“All parliamentarians arriving to vote on that day would have to pass through the rally on their way to the National Assembly and on their way back as well,” he added in what appeared to be a veiled threat.

To counter that perceived intimidation, PDM chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman has called for a massive anti-government long march to Islamabad on March 23. The date was later changed to March 25 in view of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) meeting held in Islamabad on March 22-23.

“From the door of the Parliament House to the constitutional avenue, we will hold a historic rally to give a safe passage to all lawmakers to the parliament to exercise their democratic rights,” he told a group of journalists last week.

Pakistan’s Supreme Court has intervened in the planned “tit for tat” rallies by restraining public meetings at D-Chowk. But Islamabad’s district administration has allowed public rallies to be held at different venues, meaning a street clash between pro and anti-government supporters is still possible ahead of the no-confidence vote.