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Imran Khan dissolves parliament in Pakistan and calls elections to circumvent censure motion

Pakistan's prime minister executes a dubious constitutional manoeuvre to perpetuate himself in power in the face of accusations of outside interference
Imran Khan

REUTERS/NASEER CHAUDARY  -   Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan during a rally to express solidarity with the people of Kashmir, in Muzaffarabad, Pakistan-administered Kashmir, Sept. 13, 2019

"Prime Minister Imran Khan is a player who fights to the last ball. He will not resign", tweeted Pakistan's information minister, Fawad Ahmed Chaudhry, after learning of the no-confidence motion that the opposition was preparing in the National Assembly to remove its head of government from power. And so it came to pass. The charismatic former cricketer will remain in office until at least two weeks from now, when his constitutional mandate expires with the appointment of an interim prime minister.

What has happened in Pakistan in the last few hours has been nothing short of a Dantesque episode, worthy of the local political tradition. The opposition bloc has built a parliamentary majority against Prime Minister Imran Khan. With the backing of the United National Movement, a centre-left party of just seven MPs that was part of the ruling coalition, the dissident groups secured enough support to oust the prime minister from power four years after he took office.

This last-minute support meant that the opposition bloc no longer needed the defectors from the ruling Pakistan Justice Movement (PTI), the prime minister's parliamentary group, from whose ranks have emerged profiles disappointed with the party's leader and founder. Irritated by this transfer of support, Imran Khan asked the Supreme Court to disqualify his former colleagues for life, a disqualification on which the Court has yet to rule. But first he will have to respond to another, more far-reaching request.

Politically cornered by his rivals, who hoped to end his mandate in a context marked by double-digit inflation and the rising cost of living, Imran Khan pulled off a coup on Sunday hours before the vote with the dissolution of parliament and the call for early elections. A move jointly orchestrated with the deputy speaker of the lower house, Qasim Suri, a PTI member and close ally, who raised an argument of unconstitutionality for alleged disloyalty to the state.

Oposición Pakistán
PHOTO/AP  -   Pakistani opposition lawmakers launched a no-confidence motion against Prime Minister Khan in parliament on Monday in the hope of ousting Khan's government amid accusations that he has mismanaged the nation's economy

After the parliamentary session was adjourned, the prime minister made his brand new television appearance to announce the elections, in which he will stand as a candidate, and to congratulate the nation on having "defeated" a foreign conspiracy. Accusations of interference and the involvement of third states in the no-confidence motion have been a constant theme used by Khan in recent weeks. This leitmotif has led him to point to the CIA as the main promoter of "a coup" against him, without providing solid evidence.

The US intelligence agency and the Biden administration have denied involvement in Pakistan's internal politics, but the prime minister has not relented in his accusations against Washington, a common tendency for a leader characterised, in part, by his anti-Americanism. The controversy is a response to the external role that Islamabad has played over the past four years, moving much further away from the United States, once a close ally, towards Russia and, to a greater extent, towards Xi Jinping's China, today its main political and economic partner.

According to Pakistan's constitution, once the National Assembly is dissolved, the prime minister ceases to hold office with immediate effect. However, Khan will be able to invoke Article 224 of the Constitution, which allows the chief executive to remain in office for the next 15 days. However, the information minister later confirmed that he would remain in power until the elections, which are scheduled to take place within 90 days. A move that threatens Pakistan's fragile democracy.

None of the 22 prime ministers in Pakistan's history has managed to complete his five-year term. Nor will Imran Khan, although analysts fear he could perpetuate himself in power by mass arrests of dissidents until the numbers in parliament are right, or via a coup d'état, an all too common recourse in Pakistan. Since independence in 1947, there have been four successful coups.

Incensed by Khan's ruse, the opposition accused him of treason and violating the constitution. The leaders of the various parliamentary groups rushed to the Supreme Court to demand the resumption of the parliamentary session as scheduled, but the high court postponed its decision to Monday. It is unclear whether the judiciary will uphold the prime minister's decision, although it seems unlikely given the unfavourable climate for Khan in Islamabad.

Oposición Pakistán
REUTERS/AKHTAR SOOMRO  -   Supporters of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazal (JUI-F) chant slogans and wave sticks during an anti-government rally organised by the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), an alliance of opposition political parties, after parliament accepted a no-confidence motion tabled by opposition lawmakers in a bid to oust Prime Minister Imran Khan

Pakistan's judicial independence has been called into question for its unequivocal backing of the establishment. Khan is counting on the Supreme Court to validate the move, but experts say it is likely to rule against him. That would mean he would have to face a no-confidence motion. Otherwise, the electoral procedure would continue. A scenario that the opposition wanted to denounce with a sit-in in parliament, where opposition lawmakers remained debating with the lights off.

The heirs to Pakistan's two main rival political dynasties, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari and Shahbaz Sharif, accused of financial crimes for which they are out on bail as a result of Imran Khan's prosecution, joined forces with the rest of the political parties against the prime minister and his party, the Pakistan Justice Movement. Leading respectively the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League (N), both have demanded that Khan be found guilty of treason.

The role of the army

Pakistan's most powerful and influential body, the army, has flatly rejected its involvement in the political storm that has engulfed Pakistan. Major General Babar Iftikhar, the army's chief military spokesman, said in a television interview on Sunday: "The army has nothing to do with what happened today. What happened today was purely a political process. In General Iftikhar's words, the Pakistani Armed Forces "stand with the law and the Constitution".

The official version is questionable given the military's continued involvement in national politics. It is even more so given the recent rift between the army and Prime Minister Imran Khan in October. After having given its blessing to the outsider candidate in the 2018 elections, elections that were overshadowed by suspicions of rigging, the military launched a challenge to the current president, and won.

Khan challenged the army chief, General Qamar Bajwa, over the dismissal of the then head of the intelligence services - the all-powerful ISI - Faiz Hamid, who was photographed in Kabul days after the fall of the Afghan capital to the Taliban. Hamid then held a meeting with the fundamentalist leadership, prior to the formation of the government, where he assured them of Pakistan's political backing in security-oriented cooperation.

Imran Khan
AP/ ANJUM NAVEED  -   Pakistan Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa, centre, at a military parade with Prime Minister Imran Khan, left, and President Arif Alvi, in Islamabad, Pakistan

But General Bajwa ignored the prime minister's pleas in an unprecedented public confrontation. The armed forces chief replaced Faiz Hamid in October, after a delay in his appointment caused by Khan, to replace him with the camera-shy Major Nadeem Anjum. A gesture that highlights the rift between the head of government and the military leadership. A rift that Khan himself has played down, defending the army as "the great enemy of evil and the main defender of democracy and the nation".

Free fall

The 69-year-old former international playboy, who rose to fame for his affair with British journalist Jemima Goldsmith and became popular nationally for his successful career in Pakistan's cricket, rose to power four years ago on board the Pakistan Justice Movement, which he founded and now leads with an independent profile and populist rhetoric.

Educated at Oxford, the Lahore native transformed himself into a devout Muslim who railed against the excesses of the West. Mixing the prescriptions of economic liberalism and the Islamic welfare state, Khan presented himself as the alternative to unseat the establishment, embodied in Pakistan by the duopoly of the People's Party and the Muslim League, suffocated by nepotism and systemic corruption. But his ambitious promises have come to nothing in a country hit by a severe economic crisis.

Khan rallied his remaining supporters at a rally in Islamabad on Sunday. Thousands gathered in the capital to show their support for a leader who replaced the governor of Punjab, the country's second-largest province after Balochistan, to secure the backing of a political formation in his constitutional challenge. He looks set to hold on to power, but finds himself in a weak position in the face of an unreservedly united opposition bloc. Pakistan's future is at stake in the coming hours.