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Pakistan is thrown into crisis after the prime minister dissolves parliament

Pakistani paramilitary troops stand guard with riot gears outside the National Assembly, in Islamabad, Pakistan, Sunday, April 3, 2022.
Anjum Naveed
Pakistani paramilitary troops stand guard with riot gears outside the National Assembly, in Islamabad, Pakistan, Sunday, April 3, 2022.

Updated April 3, 2022 at 2:00 PM ET

ISLAMABAD — Pakistan plunged into political crisis Sunday after the prime minister, Imran Khan, dissolved parliament ahead of a vote on a no-confidence motion in which he was widely expected to lose.

The decision to break up the parliamentary session ahead of the vote marked a stunning attempt by Khan to remain in office despite widespread economic and political discontent across Pakistan. A successful no-confidence motion would have likely seen the formation of a new government. Instead, the country looks headed to fresh elections – giving Khan a potential new lease on keeping the job.

The opposition says it will challenge the move in the country's Supreme Court. The court said it would take the challeng up on Monday, but it remains far from clear how the court may rule.

"Absolutely unprecedented," said Amber Rahim Shamsi, an analyst and former broadcaster who is now the director of the Center of Excellence in Journalism at the International Business Administration. "This is a constitutional crisis."

"This is Imran Khan changing the nature of the game," she said. "The opposition had the numbers, and it was pretty much a sure vote. Had it gone through, the prime minister would have been removed from office."

In a day of remarkable political theater in Pakistan's legislature, Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry accused the opposition of treason, while Khan's allies rushed to the floor of the chamber shouting, "Friends of America are traitors to their country!"

Khan claims Washington is plotting against him

The political crisis stems from frustrations over economic mismanagement, rising prices and concerns over the direction Pakistan's foreign policy has taken under Khan's leadership. Khan and his allies allege that Washington is trying to overthrow his government, and that his political opponents are doing Washington's bidding by trying to oust him.

Khan claims a cable from the Pakistani embassy in Washington, which relays a conversation with a senior State Department official critical of the prime minister's recent actions, as proof of U.S. meddling. American officials have denied any suggestion that they are seeking to unseat his government.

The disarray in Pakistan, a nuclear-armed nation of 220 million people, comes at a moment of deep economic anxiety in the country. As negotiations continue between Khan's government and the International Monetary Fund over a $6 billion bailout package, pandemic-linked inflation and concerns over the Russian invasion of Ukraine have combined to push up the price of food and fuel.

Khan's woes began after it appeared that the military had signaled it was no longer supporting the prime minister over allegations of economic mismanagement and disagreement with his foreign policy views.

Khan openly celebrated the Taliban's seizure of Afghanistan last year, saying the regime change meant that Afghans had "broken the shackles of slavery."He also met President Vladimir Putin as Russia invaded Ukraine. The signaling by Pakistan's most powerful institution allowed the opposition to start pushing forward with efforts to oust him. Military leaders, however, have maintained they are neutral parties in the country's political landscape.

Imran Khan addresses a campaign rally on July 21, 2018. Khan dissolved parliament this weekend ahead of a no-confidence vote he was widely expected to lose.
FAROOQ NAEEM / AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images
Imran Khan addresses a campaign rally on July 21, 2018. Khan dissolved parliament this weekend ahead of a no-confidence vote he was widely expected to lose.

In early March, the opposition put forward a no-confidence motion. At least one party that formed Khan's governing coalition supported the move last week, robbing him of his political majority.

Khan and his allies responded with threats of social disgrace, warning those who planned to vote against him that "no-one will marry your children." They appealed to the Supreme Court to decide on whether lawmakers could vote against their own party leader – the court has not made a decision.

In a devout Muslim nation, Khan has insisted he is fighting for Islam, while also claiming that Washington is trying to remove him from office.

That move appeared to be, in part, an attempt by Khan to shape a narrative that will help propel him back into power, according to Shamsi.

"He thinks he's built enough of a narrative to counter the accusations of misgovernance, to counter the inflationary pressures and the ... accusations of mismanagement," she said. "That it is these emotive messaging that will appeal to the public."

Khan said he'd win the vote, then shifted course

Khan had insisted on television that he would win the vote, but then on Saturday he dismissed the vote as part of an American conspiracy in an interview with The New York Times and said he would not accept the result. By Sunday, with the no-confidence motion set to succeed, Khan dissolved parliament.

His supporters claimed they were saving Pakistan's democracy. The parliamentary secretary for law and justice, Maleeka Bokhari, said they had stopped "a no-confidence motion that was moved unconstitutionally on the instigation of a foreign power in collusion with members of parliament of opposition and I think no democratic state, no independent sovereign state, can allow the removal of the prime minister through such unconstitutional means."

Pakistan's opposition vowed to challenge the move.

"This cannot happen like that in the daylight," said Marriyum Aurangzeb, a spokeswoman for the PML-N, a major opposition party. "This is the violation, blatant violation of the constitution of the country."

The crisis has put a fresh spotlight on the influence of Pakistan's army in domestic politics, said Mosharraf Zaidi, a columnist and director of Tabadlab, a policy think tank based in Islamabad.

The army's "stakes in this have been vastly and dramatically enhanced because it chose to intervene in the 2018 election to secure a first time prime ministership for an individual that was long seen as the only viable alternative to the traditional political families," Zaidi said. "Now that that experiment has come full circle. They are having to work with those traditional political families to extricate themselves of the political, national security and foreign policy liability that Imran Khan is."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Diaa Hadid chiefly covers Pakistan and Afghanistan for NPR News. She is based in NPR's bureau in Islamabad. There, Hadid and her team were awarded a Murrow in 2019 for hard news for their story on why abortion rates in Pakistan are among the highest in the world.
Abdul Sattar