ISLAMABAD (AP) — Pakistan’s embattled prime minister faces a tough no-confidence vote Saturday, introduced by political opponents who say they have the votes to defeat him.
A combined opposition that spans the political spectrum from the left to the 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. The timing of the vote was unclear but the Supreme Court ruling says it should happen before Saturday before midnight strikes.
In a brief exchange in Parliament on Saturday, opposition leader Shahbaz Sharif warned against further delays. Sharif is a likely candidate for prime minister should Khan lose the vote. The opposition introduced the motion last month, accusing the prime minister of economic mismanagement that has driven up prices and interest rates.
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, who was not present.
Some of Khan’s party members were vitriolic in their attacks on America. His Human Rights Minister and ally Shireen Mazari slammed what she called Washington’s history of regime changes in Central and South America, saying Pakistan’s long relationship with Washington was good only when Islamabad was “subservient.”
Khan ran afoul of America, she said, because of his independence: he sharply criticized U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan and refused to allow the U.S. military to fly over its air space to carry out attacks in Afghanistan, after its chaotic departure from that country.
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 the U.S.
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 protect Pakistan’s sovereignty and oppose U.S. dictations.
“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.
Associated Press writers Munir Ahmed in Islamabad and Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report. Follow Kathy Gannon on Twitter at www.twitter.com/Kathygannon