Imran Khan has been accused of bowing to religious extremists in Pakistan. Photo: AFP/Aamir Qureshi
Imran Khan could well return to power in Pakistan, and the US must be prepared to deal with him. Photo: AFP / Aamir Qureshi

PESHAWAR – A political vacuum is opening in Pakistan as the nation awaits a high court decision on the legality of Prime Minister Imran Khan’s attempt to foil an opposition bid to oust him via a parliamentary motion he claims was backed by the United States.

The cricket star cum premier lost his parliamentary majority last week and was widely expected to be ousted at a no-confidence vote on Sunday. But National Assembly deputy speaker Qasim Suri, a member of Khan’s party, threw out the no-confidence motion on the notion it was part of a foreign conspiracy and thus unconstitutional.

Khan then dissolved parliament, plunging the country into a constitutional crisis that may or may not pull the powerful military into play. On the advice of President Arif Alvi, Khan now leads a “caretaker” administration until new elections can be held.

Constitutionally, the government must dissolve the National Assembly by August 13, 2023, which would mark the end of Khan’s five-year term. Elections must be held within 90 days of the National Assembly’s dissolution.  

In the run-up to the impasse, several of Khan’s coalition partners switched sides to join the opposition, including Mutahida Quami Movement Pakistan (MQMP), Balochistan Awami Party (BAP), Jamhoori Watan Party (JWP) and some individual MPs. Khan’s ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) alliance previously held a majority of 179 members in the 341-member lower house National Assembly but is now down to 140 after the desertions.

The combined opposition, including the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) nine-party alliance, Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), MQMP, Awami National Party (ANP), JWP and two dozen disgruntled PTI members, now have 197 seats, which is considerably more than the magic number of 162 needed to bring down the Khan’s four-year-old government.

The opposition cited economic mismanagement and political incompetence in lodging its no-confidence motion. Just as significantly, the powerful and autonomous military that facilitated Khan’s rise has turned cool on the premier amid recent disagreements over top security-related appointments.

“Because Imran Khan has lost the confidence of the majority of the parliamentarians, he opted for unconstitutional means and imposed a civilian coup in the country to sabotage the voting on the no-confidence motion,” Zahid Khan, spokesperson of the Awami National Party, told Asia Times.

He said Khan’s move to dissolve parliament was “pre-planned and executed under a well-thought-out script to sabotage the parliamentary traditions and constitutional requirements.”

In a conspiratorial twist, Khan has claimed that the United States is behind the opposition move to oust him. The claim comes amid perceptions that Khan has sided with Russia and its ally China in what many see as an emerging new Cold War. Khan was in Moscow when Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his February 24 invasion of Ukraine.

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan and Joe Biden in a combined photo. US-Pakistan ties are in limbo. Image: Twitter

In a televised address to his parliamentarians, Khan claimed US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Don Lu told Pakistan’s Ambassador to the US Asad Majeed Khan that Pakistan would face “consequences” if opposition parties failed to vote Khan out.

Khan claimed that deposed prime minister Nawaz Sharif and other opposition leaders had held several meetings with US officials before they formally lodged their no-confidence motion in parliament, which he said indicates that the US is behind the current political instability that has engulfed the country. 

Days after Khan exposed the supposed US-sponsored conspiracy, a controversial diplomatic cable was raised for discussion in a National Security Committee (NSC) meeting. The NSC – a top civil-military forum – expressed its “grave concern” over perceived US meddling in Pakistan’s internal affairs and decided to lodge a strong protest with the US ambassador in Islamabad and in Washington.

Pakistan’s Foreign Office later confirmed that the “demarches have been made through diplomatic channels” as decided by the NSC meeting.

A Pakistan government press release issued on March 31 said, without explicitly naming the US, that “the formal communication of a senior official of a foreign country to Pakistan’s Ambassador in the said country in a formal meeting … amounted to blatant interference in the internal affairs of Pakistan by the country in question, which was unacceptable under any circumstances.”

“Apart from expressing concerns over the interference in the internal matters of the country, the NSC neither made any linkage between the US threatening comments and the opposition’s no-confidence motion nor did the meeting find any involvement of the opposition party in the conspiracy against the Khan government,” Zahid said.

In a tweet on Monday, PPP’s Chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari said,” Ex-PM Imran Khan is using ‘foreign conspiracy’ to justify his coup. Will @OfficialDGISPR clarify did the NSC meeting declare the 197 members of the National Assembly traitors and part of a foreign plot? Can the foreign office or defense ministry produce any official correspondence between March 7 to 27 on foreign sazish {conspiracy}?”

In another tweet, Bilawal said, “Surely a plot of this scale would have been uncovered by our own intelligence agencies and other institutions, not just an ambassador’s cable. Imran’s ego is not more important than Pakistan’s.

Much now hinges on how the Supreme Court rules on the opposition’s legal challenge of Khan’s dissolution of parliament. A five-member bench of judges heard arguments in a packed courtroom on Tuesday but has not said how quickly it may come to a decision.

Pakistan’s Supreme Court has been called to make a political ruling. Image: Facebook

The court could order that parliament be reconstituted, call for new elections or rule that it lacks the authority to intervene in parliamentary affairs. Drawn-out legal proceedings, analysts say, could create a situation of instability that opens the way for a military takeover.  

Chief Justice of Pakistan Umar Ata Bandial said on Sunday that nobody should take advantage of the prevailing political situation in the country, a message some perceived as a call on the military to remain in the barracks.

“Any orders and actions that Prime Minister Imran Khan and President Arif Alvi take regarding the dissolution of the National Assembly shall be subject to the order of this court,” the top judge said. Meanwhile, the nation of 220 million teeters on the brink of a political explosion.