Islamabad, Pakistan – Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan is facing the biggest political crisis of his career as the opposition prepares to move a no-confidence motion against Khan in parliament and bring down his government, which has ruled the country since August 2018.
The parliament met at 11am local time (0600 GMT) on Friday in capital Islamabad and the decisive vote to remove the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI)-led coalition government could take place within a week.
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The move to oust Khan is led by the main opposition parties, the Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PMLN) and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP).
Khan, who came to power on a platform of anti-corruption and other political reforms in Pakistan, has denounced the opposition as a “gang of thieves” in vitriolic public addresses, and has promised to defeat the no-confidence vote.
Taking a cue from Khan, ruling party members have bluntly attacked the timing and motives of the opposition.
“This is all just to save themselves,” Andleeb Abbas, the PTI parliamentary secretary for foreign affairs, told Al Jazeera, referring to the Sharif brothers who lead the PMLN and former President Asif Zardari, who heads the PPP.
“They know Prime Minister Khan is not going to forgive their corruption and that the accountability net is tightening around them.”
But a confident opposition has dismissed the government’s claims and is predicting victory in the no-confidence vote.
“The performance of this government has been pathetic. Everyone can see it, especially on the economy,” Naveed Qamar, a senior PPP leader and one of the parliamentary leaders wanting to unseat the prime minister, told Al Jazeera.
“It was only a matter of time before his own party members abandoned him [Khan]. They hate him and gone is the artificial resuscitation through which the government was surviving.”
The opposition believes it has the strength in the 342-member National Assembly to defeat Khan in a no-confidence vote, which requires a simple majority in the house. Dissident members of PTI in Parliament and dissatisfied coalition allies may join the opposition to vote out Khan.
Meanwhile, Pakistan’s powerful military is also widely perceived to have withdrawn its support for Khan, emboldening the opposition to strike.
“If Khan and the Speaker [of the National Assembly] don’t engage in gymnastics and shenanigans, this should be over soon,” Qamar said of the no-confidence vote.
Khan’s precarious position in Parliament is embodied by the dissident PTI Member of National Assembly (MNA) Noor Alam Khan, who claims to be part of a bloc of at least 24 dissident MNAs that could vote against the prime minister.
“We will make our final decision when we enter the House,” Noor Alam told Al Jazeera. “But I don’t know what the prime minister can do. I think it’s over.”
The PTI parliamentarian cited a string of reasons for his dissatisfaction with Khan’s government: economic mismanagement, alleged corruption among senior government ministers, failure to address problems at the constituency level and, most recently, Khan’s aggressive rhetoric against party dissidents.
“This guy is calling us names, inciting violence against us, calling us petty bribe takers,” Noor Alam said of the prime minister. “It’s unbelievable.”
In the murky world of Pakistani politics, however, Khan could still emerge victorious. The government has approached the Supreme Court to determine if dissident votes against Khan can be declared invalid. The court hearings are under way and could delay the no-confidence vote beyond next week.
Khan and the opposition parties are also both wooing the government’s coalition allies. Of particular focus has been the Pakistan Muslim League – Quaid (PMLQ), whose leader, Pervaiz Elahi, has long sought a return as chief minister of Punjab, a post currently held by a Khan’s protege, Usman Buzdar.
Punjab is the most populous and affluent province of Pakistan and its chief minister holds arguably the second most powerful civilian post in the country. Punjab government’s spokesperson Hasaan Khawar denied that the provincial chief ministership has been offered to PMLQ’s Elahi in return for supporting Khan in the no-confidence vote. Khawar claimed the prime minister is “satisfied” with Buzdar’s work.
Ultimately, however, Khan’s fate may hinge on the state of his relationship with the country’s military leadership. In October, Khan and the army chief General Qamar Bajwa engaged in an extraordinary, weeks-long and public standoff over the replacement of the country’s top spy, then-Director General of the Inter Services Intelligence (DG ISI) Gen Faiz Hameed, who Khan wanted to continue as spy chief.
Khan lost that battle against Bajwa, and Hameed was replaced as DG ISI. But the political reverberations from that standoff have been intense. On the verge of forcing a no-confidence vote in parliament, the opposition is candid about the effect of a changed civil-military dynamic on political calculations.
“In our view, the crutch that was holding the government up was removed in October and so it’s time to do what’s been the crying need for a while,” Khurram Dastagir, a senior PMLN parliamentarian and former federal minister, told Al Jazeera. “The unstoppable wave of inflation, particularly food inflation, can’t go on. The government has to go.”
Dastagir denied that the opposition is simply trying to replace Khan in the military’s affections and tolerance. “The army has taken a step back, which is what we have demanded. We see it as a victory of democratic norms.”
Unsurprisingly, Prime Minister Khan has a different view.
In a video message on Thursday, Khan called on the public to join him in a major rally in Islamabad on March 27 to stand against “evil” and defend “democracy and the nation”. The theme of the rally is an Islamic reference to promoting good.