ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – Prime Minister Imran Khan of Pakistan is fighting for his political survival after opposition political parties tabled a vote of no confidence in parliament and the country’s powerful military withdrew support for his government.
Mr Khan, the former cricket star turned politician, has announced plans to rally a million supporters in Islamabad, has appealed to the Supreme Court to disqualify lawmakers who have defected from his party and denounce his critics as part of an American-influenced conspiracy.
But as demands for his resignation mount, critics and analysts say he has lost his majority in parliament and these measures are unlikely to change that.
“He rightly feels that the end may be near,” said Arif Rafiq, president of Vizier Consulting, a New York-based political risk consultancy. “And he’s a fighter. But it just doesn’t look like he’ll have the numbers to survive a vote of no confidence.”
Pakistan, the world’s second-largest Muslim country, has been a reluctant but important US partner in the campaign against terrorism. A nuclear-armed country supporting the Taliban government in neighboring Afghanistan has drifted further from the United States under Khan Khan and has embraced a strategic partnership with China and closer ties with Russia.
But the political threats to Mr Khan are mainly domestic. Pakistan is plagued by double-digit inflation, which has sparked widespread discontent and fueled criticism that it has mismanaged the economy.
In addition, he has lost support from the military, ostensibly over his attempt to put a loyal aide and former spy chief, Lieutenant General Faiz Hamid, in charge of the military over the top men’s objections.
And while opposition parties exploit these weaknesses, Mr Khan’s scorched earth policy has left him few friends and little room for negotiation. He has imprisoned most of the major opposition leaders at one time or another. They are now out on bail, but Mr Khan has threatened to lock them up again.
The denouement is likely to come next week in a vote in parliament that, if things go as expected, would extend Pakistan’s record of never allowing a prime minister to serve a full five-year term. But Mr Khan’s heavy-handed tactics and the prospect of competing mass rallies in Islamabad this weekend have also raised fears of violence that could disrupt any democratic process.
Three major allied political parties that are part of the governing coalition have now indicated that they can align themselves with the opposition in the parliamentary vote. That would be enough to overthrow Mr Khan’s government.
Opposition leaders also claim to have the support of dozens of dissidents within Mr Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party. Last week, his party was rocked by the defection of at least a dozen lawmakers who accused their leader of failing to tackle inflation.
“The ruling coalition has effectively lost the majority,” Mustafa Nawaz Khokhar, a senator from the opposition Pakistan Peoples Party, said in an interview. “The military doesn’t seem interested in rescuing Imran Khan either. The baggage of economic mismanagement is too much to bear.”
Chosen as a nationalist in 2018, Mr Khan pledged to fight corruption, get the country’s anemic economy back on track and maintain an independent, anti-American foreign policy. But aside from the latter, he’s struggled to keep those promises.
Pakistan’s economic problems are not entirely its own fault. Inflation caused by pandemic problems in the supply chain is a global problem, as is rising energy costs. He has blamed the previous government for the high foreign debt he inherited.
And true to his rambunctious, self-righteous style, he has mocked critics who claim otherwise.
“I am not here to control tomato and potato prices, but to educate a nation,” he said at a meeting in Hafizabad this month. He has accused the opposition of being “bought with looted money” and, to the delight of his supporters, refers to the three main opposition parties as the “three front men” or “the three mice”.
But he struggled with economic policy and changed his economic team several times during his early years in office. And while he was able to negotiate a $6 billion bailout from the International Monetary Fund last year, he has admitted it was a mistake not to do so three years ago.
The IMF loan, the first $1 billion of which was approved in November, came at the cost of painful economic reforms that have pushed fuel and electricity prices soaring. And the fact that the governor of the State Bank is a former IMF operative has fueled criticism that the IMF now runs the country.
“The government cannot hide behind the Covid-19 excuse for the price hike and inflation that has battered people from all walks of life,” said Khurram Dastgir Khan, an opposition member of parliament, in an interview. “In August 2019, the inflation rate exceeded 10 percent. Double-digit inflation has not cooled down since then.”
Critics have also accused Mr Khan of carrying out political vendettas and members of his inner circle have been accused of corruption.
And if Mr Khan is able to elevate General Hamid, who is seen by the opposition as Mr Khan’s political enforcer, as the new army chief, opposition leaders fear further arrests and repression. They have accused General Hamid of rigging the 2018 general election in favor of Mr Khan, and fear he could do so again as army chief in the next election.
Mr Khan and military officials have denied that the military played any role in the election, but the military’s initial support for Mr Khan is widely regarded as a key reason for his taking power.
The current army chief’s term of office expires in November and opposition leaders fear Mr Khan plans to replace him with General Hamid.
That is, according to analysts, a bridge too far for the military, and that gap is perhaps the most crucial factor in the current political crisis. The military is used to taking its own responsibility and has never accepted civilian leaders meddling in internal affairs.
The rift between Mr. Khan and the military first came to light last year after Mr. Khan opposed the army’s routine transfers and insisted that General Hamid continue as spy chief. mr. Khan lost that battle and General Hamid was sent to a post in Peshawar.
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The generals have also expressed dissatisfaction with Mr Khan’s disorderly governance style and the way he handles the economy, according to politicians close to the military.
“For more than three years, Khan’s coalition government was supported by the military,” said Mr. Rafiq. “Now the military has taken a step back. Maybe some big political concessions could get him a few extra months.”
Khan, who has used anti-US rhetoric to his political advantage, has attacked his critics by saying they are backed by foreign powers, namely the United States. Last week, at a political rally in Swat, he urged the crowd to support him against “slaves of America.”
Although Mr Khan has had several meetings with Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, Pakistan’s relations with the United States have cooled and Mr Khan has not yet spoken with President Biden.
In recent speeches, he has emphasized his opposition to US foreign policy, which has made Pakistan a base for counter-terrorism operations, and his supporters have argued that the current wave of opposition stems from its refusal to allow the United States to use Pakistani bases. to be used for operations in Afghanistan. Last June, Mr Khan said Pakistan would “absolutely not” allow the CIA to use bases in Pakistan for counter-terrorism operations in Afghanistan.
The opposition has pushed for a more cooperative relationship with the United States, but opposition lawmaker Khurram Dastgir Khan dismissed the claims of foreign powers behind the opposition campaign as “absurd”.
“There is no foreign hand,” he said. “The only hands in this episode are the raised hands of the Pakistani people, who are praying for redemption from the current government.”
Maleeha Lodhi, a former Pakistani ambassador to the United States and Britain, called the charges of foreign interference “a classic populist but hollow tactic used by beleaguered governments.”
“This has no basis, but is meant to build an alibi and find outside scapegoats if he loses the vote of no confidence,” she said.
Rising tensions have heightened fears of violence as both sides wage heated rhetoric and the political crisis pushes the country into another round of instability and unrest. Opposition politicians accuse Mr Khan’s party of using violence to intimidate its critics and opponents.
On Friday, dozens of Mr Khan’s supporters attacked a building where dissident lawmakers from his party had taken refuge, citing threats to their security. Two of the attackers – lawmakers in Mr Khan’s party – were arrested but quickly released.
The opposition responded to Mr Khan’s planned meeting in Islamabad by announcing a counter-protest, raising fears of possible violent clashes.
Human Rights Watch warned last week that both sides should urge their supporters to refrain from violence.
“The government has a responsibility to uphold the constitution and to vote on the no-confidence motion without threats or violence,” the group said in a statement. “Both the government and the opposition must send a strong message to their supporters not to undermine the democratic process or influence the vote through intimidation or other criminal acts.”