Pakistan is facing a sudden power vacuum after its president dissolved parliament and called for early elections that could give a fresh mandate to Prime Minister Imran Khan, who has accused the United States of colluding with his opposition to oust him.
President Arif Alvi, Khan’s ally, dismissed parliament on April 3, right after the deputy speaker – also Khan’s ally – blocked a no-confidence vote that Khan would likely have not survived and would have removed him as prime minister.
“No foreign power shall be allowed to topple an elected government through a conspiracy,” Deputy Speaker Qasim Suri said as he dismissed the motion against Khan, in line with Khan’s earlier allegations. Pakistan’s opposition leader Shehbaz Sharif called the stunning dismissal “unconstitutional” and accused Khan of imposing a “civil martial law” in the country.
Security personnel patrol in front of the Parliament House building in Islamabad on April 3, 2022 as Prime Minister Imran Khan called on his supporters to take to the streets today ahead of a parliamentary no-confidence vote that could see him thrown out of office. Aamir QURESHI / AFP
The developments risk further destabilising Pakistan’s fragile democracy. No prime minister has ever completed their full term of five years, while the country has seen three military coups since 1958. Pakistan has historically had better ties with the U.S. under military governments than under democratic governments, which have often faced U.S. sanctions. Sharing borders with U.S. foes China and Iran, Pakistan had been a critical ally in supporting American troops stationed in Afghanistan for two decades, and was a key mediator in negotiations between the Taliban and U.S.
The U.S. has denied claims it interfered in Pakistan’s politics. “When it comes to these allegations, there is no truth to them," State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters during a briefing on March 31. "We are closely following developments in Pakistan. We respect [and] we support Pakistan's constitutional process and the rule of law.”
Khan’s fate now depends on Pakistan’s Supreme Court, which may rule either to restore parliament and resume the vote against Khan, or to uphold his parliament's dismissal and call for early elections.
But even before the verdict, many of Khan’s ministers have already resigned, including the national security chief and the education minister. The crisis has left practically no elected official in charge of running the nuclear power with 220 million people grappling with unprecedented national debt and inflation.
“Pakistan’s leadership has demonstrated its lack of engagement with more urgent and pressing matters for the Pakistani people. Pakistan is staring a massive economic crisis in the face,” public policy expert Mosharraf Zaidi told VICE World News.
Blamed by the opposition for the country’s soaring inflation and foreign debt, Khan was supposed to face a vote-of-no-trust by lawmakers last week. During his four-year rule thus far, the Pakistani currency devalued against the U.S. dollar by a whopping 30 percent.
Leading up to the vote, Khan had framed the opposition’s attempt to unseat him as a conspiracy backed by the United States, which he suggested was upset by his visit to Moscow on the eve of the Russian offensive against Ukraine. Although Khan appeared to maintain a neutral stance on the conflict, analysts had warned that the ill-timed meeting put a strain on Pakistan’s relationship with the U.S. Khan’s public speeches have also been increasingly anti-American and anti-Western, which is a departure from all previous Pakistani leaders.
In a speech on March 31, Khan claimed that the U.S. had delivered a threatening message to its Pakistan ambassador. “They say they are angry with Pakistan... They say they will forgive Pakistan if Imran Khan loses a no-trust motion. But if the vote fails, Pakistan will have to face serious consequences,” he said.
A supporter of Prime Minister Imran Khan's party holds a placard with his picture during a rally in Islamabad on March 27, 2022. Aamir QURESHI / AFP
On April 3, Khan reiterated the claim in more detail, saying the message had been relayed to Pakistan’s ambassador to the U.S. Asad Majeed by U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Donald Lu during a meeting in Washington DC on March 7.
Experts say Khan’s allegations may ultimately harm Pakistan. “Yelping about a foreign conspiracy whilst also requiring the economic and political favour of those very ‘conspirators’ is a bad look for anyone claiming to build a strong and sovereign Pakistan,” said Zaidi.
Pakistan’s military has appeared to distance itself from Khan’s anti-U.S. rhetoric, as it recently reaffirmed its alliance with the U.S. and stated that Russia's invasion of Ukraine must be "stopped immediately.”
Political observers had seen Khan’s removal coming, due to his strained relations with the armed forces – the country’s most powerful institution. Khan had previously enjoyed warm relations with the military establishment, which is believed to have been instrumental in his rise to power, along with the popular vote his party received in 2018. However, those ties soured in October, when his choice for the country’s spy chief was replaced by the military.
The military has denied involvement in recent political events, but analysts warn that the current political crisis could possibly trigger military intervention.
Khan is expected to remain in office until a caretaker prime minister is appointed, although opposition lawmakers have now petitioned the Supreme Court to overturn the dismissal, saying it was tantamount to “high treason.” Legal experts have called out the dismissal as a constitutional infringement.
Follow Rimal Farrukh on Twitter.