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After a week of political chaos in Pakistan, more turmoil lies ahead

Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan speaks during a joint news conference with Afghan president at the Presidential Palace in Kabul in 2020.
Wakil Kohsar
/
AFP via Getty Images
Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan speaks during a joint news conference with Afghan president at the Presidential Palace in Kabul in 2020.

ISLAMABAD – In a week of political turmoil in Pakistan, the country has gone from having a prime minister, to a caretaker prime minister, back to a prime minister. And on Saturday, the whole cycle might start again.

Pakistanis have been glued to news updates instead of the televised serial dramas that usually command attention during the holy Muslim month of Ramadan.

And that news has been full of intrigue: There's an alleged American plot for regime change. Brawls outside the Supreme Court. At the center of it all is Prime Minister Imran Khan — a man who has sharply divided Pakistan between those who think he's saving the country and those who believe he's just another populist demagogue, in it for his own ego.

"For a play destined to be a 'classic' in the history of the theatre of absurd, its actors are unfit even for cameo appearances," moaned one writer in the liberal Pakistan daily, Dawn.

The crisis began last Sunday when Khan moved to dissolve parliament instead of face a vote of no-confidence that he seemed sure to lose.

That was after opposition parties lured away some of the prime minister's coalition allies. Controversially, they also convinced more than a dozen of Khan's own Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party members to join the mutiny, amid accusations that bribery had purchased their allegiance.

Khan say moves against his government are a U.S. plot

The deputy speaker, Qasim Khan Suri, argued that the vote could not go ahead because it was part of an American plot to overthrow Khan's government. Washington, he charged, was angry at the Pakistan government's independence in foreign policy.

Khan and others have pointed to a diplomatic cable from a meeting on March 7 between the former Pakistani ambassador and a senior state department official as proof.

U.S. officials deny that assertion.

As Suri spoke, loyal lawmakers shouted: "Traitors! Traitors! Traitors!" Afterwards, PTI lawmaker Maleeka Bukhari insisted the move was to thwart regime change "on the instigation of a foreign power in collusion with members of parliament."

Analysts said the context for the opposition's move was that the military had signaled it was no longer supporting Khan's government, which gave an opening to the opposition to make a bid for power. The military is widely seen as being the ultimate arbiter in the country's politics, even though it denies any involvement.

As parliament was dissolved, the local currency, the rupee, plunged in value against the dollar. The stock market tumbled. The IMF paused its operations just as Pakistani officials were meant to negotiate the next tranche of a $6 billion bailout.

Pakistan's highest court weighs in

The Supreme Court agreed to hear complaints by the opposition over the government's effort to dissolve parliament. On Thursday night, the chief justice declared that move unconstitutional, and ordered parliament back in session.

"It is a victory for democracy and the constitution, which has been battered many times in Pakistan," said Senator Sherry Rehman of the opposition Pakistan People's Party, or PPP.

"It could not have come sooner," an editorial in Dawn said. "Prime Minister Imran Khan's stubborn insistence on not letting his opponents have the satisfaction of voting him out had rendered Pakistan's entire democracy a farce. It will be worth remembering that this was a choice."

Khan says he'll address the nation on Friday evening ahead of the no-confidence motion, which the Supreme Court ordered to be held no later than Saturday morning.

Writing on Twitter, Khan, a former cricket star, employed one of his frequent sports analogies: "My message to our nation is I have always & will continue to fight for Pak till the last ball."

Khan's allies accuse the Supreme Court of a "judicial coup"

A key Khan ally, Shireen Mazari, the federal human rights minister, described the court's decision on Twitter as "a judicial coup." She continued, "The long shadows hanging over this judicial decision think the game has been won but frankly it has just started."

So far, legal experts tell NPR that Khan can avoid being thrown out of power by resigning, along with his lawmakers, which would likely trigger a new election. Khan's allies have echoed that, with the interior minister, Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, telling local media that "all should resign unanimously."

It may seem odd that the opposition is trying to stop early elections when they are so confident of their mandate, but they contend it's necessary to spark electoral reforms before the next general vote.

Farhatullah Babar, a prominent former senator from the PPP, is one of many politicians who believe the military, working from behind the scenes, helped bring Khan to power in the 2018 elections by cracking down on his opponents and by manipulating the vote.

Pakistan's army is considered to wield so much power in the country that it is often referred to simply as "the establishment."

"If the election reforms are not made, the establishment will have the opportunity to rig the elections in the same manner it did in 2018," Babar said.

The PTI looks likely to double-down on its accusations of an American plot to topple him, saying it has formed a commission to investigate the alleged diplomatic cable that Khan has produced as evidence.

That theme has been echoed by his supporters, who have trended the hashtag #ImranKhanVsWesternSlaves. One prominent supporter, the Pakistani singer Quratulain Balouch, wrote on Twitter, "Can we all come out and reject this decision? What kind of democracy is this where the people's votes have no value over the MNAs who can easily sell out their souls and their country men," she wrote. "I stand with Imran Khan and for your own sake, Stand up for yourself."

But even if new elections are held, it's unlikely to heal the deep political divisions.

Khan is unlikely to step away from his populist, polarizing style. "His approach will definitely be scorched earth, with everybody being traitors," said Fasi Zaki, a columnist who cohosts a political podcast called How To Pakistan.

"You are going to have extreme polarization and it's a recipe for whoever loses not to accept the elections even if a new government comes in, it's quite problematic," Zaki says.

Copyright 2022 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