Pakistan’s embattled PM faces tough no-confidence vote

AP Photo / Anjum Naveed
Police officers with riot gears arrive to take position outside the National Assembly, in Islamabad on Saturday.

ISLAMABAD (AP) — Pakistan’s embattled prime minister faces a tough no-confidence vote Saturday introduced by his political opponents, who say they have the votes to defeat him.

A combined opposition that spans the political spectrum from left to radically religious says it has the 172 votes it needs in Pakistan’s 342-seat Parliament to oust Prime Minister Imran Khan.

Khan took to national television on the eve of the vote calling on supporters to take to the streets to protest on Sunday, an indication he believed he would lose the vote. Pakistan’s five-member Supreme Court on Thursday blocked Khan’s bid to stay in power, ruling that his move to dissolve Parliament and call early elections was illegal.

Thursday’s court decision set the stage for a no-confidence vote, which was likely to go against Khan after several of his ruling party members and a small but key coalition partner defected.

In a brief exchange in Parliament on Saturday, opposition leader Shahbaz Sharif warned against further delays. Sharif is a likely candidate to replace Khan should Khan lose the vote.

Khan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, meanwhile, demanded an investigation into ruling party allegations that the no-confidence vote was a ploy by the opposition and America to unseat Khan.

Parliament Speaker Asad Qaiser ended debate without commenting on the call for an investigation before the vote and instead adjourned Parliament until 12:30 p.m. local time. Khan was not present.

In an impassioned speech Friday, Khan doubled down on his accusations that his opponents colluded with the United States to unseat him over his foreign policy choices, which often seemed to favor China and Russia and defied U.S. criticism.

Khan said Washington opposed his Feb. 24 meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin hours after tanks rolled into Ukraine launching a devastating war in the heart of Europe.

The U.S. State Department has denied any involvement in Pakistan’s internal politics. Deputy State Department spokeswoman Jalina Porter told reporters on Friday there was “absolutely no truth to these allegations.”

“Of course, we continue to follow these developments and support Pakistan’s constitutional process, but again these allegations are absolutely not true,” she said.

Still, Khan urged his supporters to take to the streets, particularly the youth who have been the backbone of his support since the former cricket star turned conservative Islamist politician came to power in 2018. He said they needed to protest an America that wants to dictate to Pakistan to protect Pakistan’s sovereignty.

“You have to come out to protect your own future. It is you who have to protect your democracy, your sovereignty and your independence. … This is your duty,” he said. “I will not accept an imposed government.”

Khan’s options are limited and should he see a big turnout in support, he may try to keep the momentum of street protests as a way to pressure Parliament to dissolve and go to early elections.

A no-confidence vote loss for Khan on Saturday would bring to power some unlikely partners.

Among them is a radically religious party that runs scores of religious schools. The Jamiat-e-ulema-Islam, or Assembly of Clerics, teaches a deeply conservative brand of Islam in its schools. Many of Afghanistan’s Taliban and Pakistan’s own homegrown violent Taliban graduated from JUI schools.

The largest among the opposition parties — the Pakistan People’s Party, led by the son of slain former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, and the Pakistan Muslim League — have been tainted by allegations of widespread corruption.

Pakistan Muslim League leader and former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was convicted of corruption after being named in the so-called Panama Papers. That’s a collection of leaked secret financial documents showing how some of the world’s richest hide their money and involving a global law firm based in Panama. Sharif was disqualified by Pakistan’s Supreme Court from holding office.

If the opposition wins the no-confidence vote, it is up to Parliament to choose a new head of government, which could be Sharif’s brother, Shahbaz Sharif. If the lawmakers are unsuccessful, early elections would be called.