ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – Pakistan’s Supreme Court on Thursday overturned Prime Minister Imran Khan’s decision to dissolve parliament, paving the way for a vote of no confidence widely expected to remove him from office and offer a major victory to opposition leaders, who said Mr Khan had attempted an “overt coup”.
Mr Khan, the international cricketer turned politician, and his allies dissolved parliament on Sunday, effectively blocking a no-confidence vote. The move plunged the country into a constitutional crisis and sharply escalated the political instability that has gripped Pakistan for weeks.
Recent developments have revived fears of unrest in the nuclear-armed nation of 220 million people that has experienced repeated military coups since its founding 75 years ago.
The prospect of Mr Khan being ousted by opposition parties, former allies and defectors within his own party in parliament is likely to hurt his ability to gain widespread support before the next election. While no Prime Minister in Pakistan has ever completed a full five-year term, Khan would be the first to be ousted by a vote of no confidence.
In its ruling on Thursday, the court agreed that the move violated the Constitution and ordered the no-confidence vote on Saturday morning. If he loses that vote, as expected, an interim government will be formed and the country will prepare for elections in the coming months.
The ruling appeared to turn the political tide for opposition parties, who were dismayed when Mr Khan evaded the no-confidence vote on Sunday. In the days that followed, Mr Khan, a populist leader, had dominated the political narrative and garnered support for his accusations of an American-led conspiracy against him.
Now it is likely that both the opposition and Mr Khan will have to turn their attention to new elections. They will be a referendum on Mr Khan’s political shakyness following a public rebuke of his leadership by both the country’s courts and lawmakers, including some of his political allies.
“Imran Khan will lose face,” said Ayesha Siddiqa, a research associate at SOAS University of London. “It will become very clear that he has lost the confidence of parliament, including members of his own party.”
The elections will also test whether the coalition of opposition parties — mostly at odds, but working together around the goal of the no-confidence vote — can remain united.
In a country where the military controls key levers of power, elections are also widely seen as an opportunity for military leaders to elect and elevate new political partners.
“Pakistani politics has two parallel lines,” said Arifa Noor, an Islamabad-based political analyst. “One is public support and the other is military. One without the other doesn’t put you in the big seat.”
Moments after the court’s ruling, opposition supporters flooded the street outside the Supreme Court in Islamabad and erupted into cheers. They pumped their fists in the air and shouted, “Long live the Constitution!” and “Go Imran Go!”
Opposition leader Shehbaz Sharif told reporters the decision of the highest court has saved the country and preserved its independence.
“The court has certainly met people’s expectations,” said Mr. Sharif.
In an apparent effort to plan his next move, Khan convened a meeting of his cabinet and the highest political committee in parliament on Friday, and plans to address the nation Friday night, according to Fawad Chaudhryuthe Minister of Information.
Mr Khan, 69, rose to power on a nationalist platform and pledges to tackle corruption. Its popularity has been dented in recent months as inflation has risen. His relationship with key military leaders also deteriorated after he refused to support the nomination of a new chief of the country’s intelligence service last year.
Last month, a coalition of opposition parties called for a vote of no confidence, gaining the votes needed to win. But minutes before Sunday’s vote, Mr Khan’s allies in the National Assembly blocked it, announcing that he intended to disband the body, a move he later confirmed in a televised speech. He also called for early elections.
Hours later, Mr Khan and his allies justified his actions by claiming that the opposition was colluding with the United States government to oust him. US officials have denied involvement in the campaign to remove Mr Khan.
In recent days, Mr Khan has tried to use such accusations to gain support among his core base and draw people into the streets – offering a glimpse of the approach he is most likely to use to gain public support in the run-up to the general election.
On Monday evening, thousands gathered in Islamabad at a political rally for Mr Khan’s Pakistani Tehreek-e-Insaf party. Men and women draped the party flag around their shoulders or hoisted it in the air as party leaders gathered the crowd.
Standing on a platform above the crowd, Defense Minister Pervez Khattak shouted, “The youth will go to every street in the country to deliver the message that they will drive out traitors, and Imran Khan has promised that the country will not be enslaved.” !”
The audience burst into applause. Below him, a group of women began to sing, “Traitors! traitors! traitors!”
If the no-confidence vote goes as expected and Mr Khan is voted out, many expect Mr Sharif, the younger brother of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and a former Prime Minister of Punjab Province, to become interim Prime Minister.
The country’s Election Commission, an independent federal body responsible for organizing and conducting elections to the national parliament, announced on Thursday that general elections could be held in October at the earliest.
It is unclear how Mr Khan would fare in the election without the full support of the country’s military, which was widely seen as undermining the 2018 election to pave the way for his victory. Mr Khan has denied that accusation, as has the military.
Thursday’s Supreme Court ruling also casts doubt on his political narrative that the United States conspired to remove him from power, and it will likely cost him public support.
“This is a bigger political blow to Imran Khan than a vote of no confidence alone would have been, especially as it dents his narrative of the US regime change conspiracy,” said Asfandyar Mir, senior expert at the United States Institute of Peace.
Still, the fallout from Mr Khan’s recent attempt to remain in power could have long-lasting ramifications.
Amid the turmoil, the Pakistani rupee fell to an all-time low on Thursday. And the current crisis has further polarized the country and could escalate into unrest ahead of the upcoming election, analysts say.
“I’m not sure how an election campaign where people are really charged and there is a high level of bigotry remains peaceful,” said Ijaz Khan, former chair of the international relations department at the University of Peshawar. “I’m really afraid there will be more violence.”
Reporting contributed by Salman Masood and Ihsanullah Tipu Mehsudu from Islamabad, Austin Ramzy from Hong Kong, and Zia ur-Rehman from Paris.