Pakistani prime minister vows to fight on after parliament ousts him

The ouster of Prime Minister Imran Khan in a parliamentary vote of no confidence early Sunday set Pakistan on an uncertain political path, with Khan calling on supporters to take to the streets in protest and the political opposition preparing to install his replacement.

Khan was knocked down after a day of drama and often vitriolic comments. His supporters accused Washington of orchestrating his impeachment and his party left parliament shortly before the vote. In the end, 174 lawmakers in the 342-seat parliament voted to impeach him, two more than the required simple majority.

Khan’s successor will be elected and sworn in by parliament on Monday. The main contender is Shahbaz Sharif, brother of the disgraced former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

Shahbaz Sharif heads the largest party in a diverse alliance of opposition parties that span the spectrum from the left to the radical religious. Khan’s candidate for prime minister will be his foreign minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi.

Khan’s ouster comes amid his cooling relations with the powerful military and an economy grappling with high inflation and a plummeting Pakistani rupee. The opposition has accused Khan’s government of economic mismanagement.

Khan has claimed that the US has been working behind the scenes to bring him down, ostensibly due to Washington’s dismay over his independent foreign policy choices, which often favor China and Russia. He has occasionally defied America and sharply criticized America’s war on terrorism after 9/11. Khan said America was deeply troubled by his visit to Russia and his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on February 24, the start of the devastating war in Ukraine.

The US State Department has denied his allegations.

Elizabeth Threlkeld, a Pakistani expert at the US-based The Stimson Center, said Khan, even as prime minister, often played the role of opposition leader.

“His removal would put him in a role he knows well, armed with a victimization story of unfounded claims of international interference,” she said. “His base will remain loyal, although I expect that both his controversial bid to remain in power and less military support will make him lose less committed supporters.”

Khan seems to have few options going forward.

General elections are not scheduled for August 2023. Even if the new prime minister calls for snap elections, it probably won’t happen before October. Pakistan’s Election Commission, which oversees the polls, told the Supreme Court last week that it had yet to finalize constituencies in line with the results of a 2017 census before the polls could be held.

In the wake of Sunday’s vote, giant steel containers piled on top of each other blocked the main roads leading to parliament and the diplomatic enclave in the capital Islamabad. Khan has called on his supporters to gather late Sunday after the end of the daily fast from dawn to dusk during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.

Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia Program at Washington-based Wilson Center, predicted a turbulent time for Pakistan.

Khan’s defeat would also leave Pakistan a bitterly partisan and divided place. Not only has he intensified political rivalry, he has also defied and alienated key entities such as the army chief and Pakistan’s foreign ministry,” Kugelman said. “It will take time for the country to pick up the pieces and the coming months will be politically turbulent.”

Sunday’s vote capped a weeklong constitutional crisis that had mesmerized the nation. It started last Sunday when Khan tried to evade the no-confidence vote by dissolving parliament and calling early elections. It was then left to the Supreme Court to sort and ultimately decide whether to restore parliament and demand the vote.

Khan has received international acclaim for his handling of the COVID pandemic, opting for so-called ‘smart lockdowns’ where outbreaks have occurred rather than nationwide shutdowns that helped protect some industries, such as the construction sector. His reputation for fighting corruption has generated a record $21 billion in deposits from overseas Pakistanis.

But he has failed to overcome the increasingly tense relationship with the military, which has ruled Pakistan directly for more than half of its 75-year history and indirectly from the sidelines when civilian governments ruled.

Khan’s opponents say the military helped him win the 2018 election after falling out with Nawaz Sharif, who was convicted of corruption after being mentioned in the so-called Panama Papers. These papers are a collection of leaked classified financial documents showing how some of the world’s richest hide their money and involving a global law firm in Panama.

Pakistan’s Supreme Court has disqualified Sharif from office. He lives in London in self-imposed exile after being convicted of corruption by a Pakistani court. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

Fissures in Khan’s relationship with the military started last November after he argued with powerful army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa over the appointment of the new intelligence chief.

Last weekend, Bajwa appeared to distance himself from Khan’s anti-US attacks, saying Pakistan wants good relations with Washington, its largest export trading partner, and with China. He condemned the Russian war in Ukraine.

Follow Kathy Gannon on Twitter at www.twitter.com/Kathygannon

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