President Alvi of Pakistan dissolved its parliament yesterday, setting the country on course for early elections, after a failed attempt to unseat Imran Khan as prime minister.
The deputy speaker of parliament refused to hold a vote of confidence that Khan had been expected to lose. The prime minister and his allies claimed that America had conspired with the opposition to try to oust him.
Khan went on national television shortly after the deputy speaker’s ruling to say he would ask the president to dissolve parliament and call elections. The PM had said that a Pakistani ambassador had received a letter warning “if Khan stays as prime minister then Pakistan will have to face difficulties”. Khan said that the letter had come “from America”.
Pakistani officials had been informed of “an operation for a regime change by a foreign government”, Fawad Chaudhry, the information minister, told MPs. Khan has said that the White House wants him gone because his foreign policy often favours China and Russia. He has also been a vocal opponent of Washington’s war on terror.
After Chaudhry made his statement, Qasim Khan Suri, the deputy speaker, said the proposed confidence vote violated national security, and was to be rejected by the House, causing uproar in the chamber. He declared that the opposition’s motion was unconstitutional and abruptly ended the session.
Pakistan’s main opposition parties, whose ideologies span left to right and radically religious, have been working to oust Khan almost since the day the former cricketer was elected prime minister in 2018. Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, head of the opposition Pakistan People’s Party and son of the assassinated prime minister Benazir Bhutto, called a sit-in at parliament. “We are moving to the Supreme Court,” he said.
Shehbaz Sharif, of the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), the opposition leader in the House and a potential candidate for prime minister, said: “It is nothing short of high treason. Khan has pushed the country into anarchy and there will be consequences for blatant and brazen violation of the constitution.”
The opposition arrived in parliament ready to vote Khan out of power, needing a simple majority of 172 votes in the 342-seat chamber to unseat him. Khan’s small but key coalition partners, and 17 of his own party members, joined the opposition to oust him.
The confidence vote had been expected some time after parliament convened yesterday but parliamentary rules allow for three to seven days of debate. The opposition had said it had the numbers for an immediate vote.
After the dissolving of parliament, Khan said there should be “elections in a democratic way”, adding: “I call upon the people of Pakistan to prepare for elections. The people should decide what they want, not foreigners. Buying people through money has resulted in this. Put that money in something better. I implore the nation to prepare for elections. You will decide the future of this nation, not the corrupt or the foreigners.”
The police were preparing themselves for violence after the events in Islamabad. There was a heavy police and paramilitary presence on the capital’s streets, with shipping containers used to block off roads and main entrances to the red zone that houses government and military buildings. Khan’s future hangs in the balance after opposition politicians filed a petition in the Supreme Court to oust him through a fresh confidence vote.
Political pundits and constitutional scholars questioned whether the planned vote was indeed illegal, whether the dismissal of it was or if the claims of foreign interference meant that treason charges could realistically be triggered.
The army, which has ruled Pakistan for about half of its existence since independence from Britain in 1947, has stayed neutral in the matter. However, military chiefs have had a rocky relationship with Khan.
General Qamar Javed Bajwa, the chief of the army staff, referred on Saturday to Pakistan’s “long and excellent strategic relationship with the US’”, when speaking to reporters.
His comments contrast with Khan’s increasingly anti-American rhetoric.
“Khan’s biggest failing has been his insistence on remaining a partisan leader,” Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia programme at the Washington-based Wilson Center think tank, said.
“He hasn’t been willing to extend a hand across the aisle to his rivals,” Kugelman added. “He’s remained stubborn and unwilling to make important compromises. As a result, he’s burnt too many bridges at a moment when he badly needs all the help he can get.”
Khan’s insistence that there is American involvement in attempts to oust him exploits a deep-seated mistrust among many in Pakistan, Asfandyar Mir, a senior Asia expert at the US Institute of Peace, said.
“The fact that it has such easy traction in Pakistan speaks to some of the damage US foreign policy has done in the post 9/11 era in general and in Pakistan in particular,” he said. “There is a reservoir of anti-American sentiment in the country, which can be instrumentalised easily by politicians.”