Pakistan’s prime minister, Imran Khan, is on the verge of being ousted in a vote of no confidence after more than three years in power.
Accusing the 69-year-old former cricket star of economic mismanagement and rights abuses, the opposition has spent weeks persuading Khan’s coalition partners to defect and has seemingly done enough ahead of the vote on Apr. 3. In a raucous session of the National Assembly on Thursday, lawmakers appeared to have formed a bloc of 172—sufficient to topple the government—and confidently took group photographs of what they regarded as a watershed moment.
While the problem of corruption in Pakistani society is well documented, much of the political hostility toward Khan stems from his use of the issue to quash rivals, detaining them on trumped up charges. Marriyum Aurangzeb, information secretary for the opposition Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PMLN), accuses Khan of using a “false corruption narrative” to consolidate his grip on power.
When Khan took office, “Everybody in our party was thrown in jail, every day we used to wait for the news of who was next,” Aurangzeb says. “He went after the media, he went after business people, he went after the opposition, every party, and he thought that by putting everyone in jail he would be successful.”
Dr. Nida Kirmani, associate professor of sociology at the Lahore University of Management Sciences, confirms that while Khan’s anti-graft posturing taps into “legitimate public frustration,” its scope is limited because it is used to attack political opponents. “This narrative has been a trope of populist leaders to gain support, but their analysis and diagnosis is superficial,” she tells TIME.
The reverberations of Khan’s likely removal will be felt much further afield than Islamabad, however. A strident critic of the West, the prime minister has made anti-Americanism a part of his political persona, infamously accusing the U.S., in 2020, of “martyring” Osama bin Laden. After the fall of Kabul in August last year, he endorsed the Taliban takeover and remarked that the people of Afghanistan, in defeating the U.S., had “broken the shackles of slavery.”
More recently, Khan arrived in Moscow for an official visit on the day that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine, drawing attention to the Kremlin’s evolving relationship with Islamabad, which has adopted a neutral position in the conflict.
Pakistan’s opposition, on the other hand, has deep misgivings about Khan’s collision course with Washington and can be expected to reset the relationship if Khan is ousted. “The need of the hour is to repair our relations with America diplomatically,” says Sartaj Aziz, who was adviser to the prime minister on foreign affairs from 2013 to 2017.
At stake in Sunday’s vote is thus the geopolitical direction of one of the world’s nine nuclear powers, at a time when war in Ukraine has sent global tensions soaring and brought alliances under scrutiny. Ahsan Iqbal, who served as interior minister before Khan took office, says the incumbent has badly miscalculated over the conflict in Europe.
“He should have at least said that we do not support this invasion, we want international forums to play their role, and Russia should show restraint and negotiate a settlement,” Iqbal tells TIME. “But what this government chose [was] not to take any position and I think that was a big blunder.”
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For Shirin Mazari, who serves as human rights minister in Khan’s cabinet, the ouster of Khan will have grave consequences for Pakistan’s future. “If the likes of the PMLN and PPP [Pakistan People’s Party] come back to power,” she says, “we will see more corruption and a return to a servile foreign policy that has cost us dearly in terms of lives lost and compromises on critical issues.”
Faced with the greatest challenge of his political career, Khan himself is falling back on a favorite tactic: accusing foreign powers of plotting with his opponents in retaliation for his refusal to do Western bidding. At the center of his counterattack is a mysterious diplomatic cable sent by Pakistan’s then ambassador to the U.S., Asad Majeed Khan.
The missive, which has not been made public, purportedly relays a State Department assessment that Pakistan-U.S. relations have deteriorated under Khan and that a restoration of cordial ties would depend on his removal. The prime minister says this is evidence of a Washington-backed conspiracy to oust him. The State Department has denied the allegation.
Maleeha Lodhi, who served as Pakistan’s envoy to Washington from 1999 to 2002, says the idea that the Biden administration is involved in trying to remove the prime minister is an absurdity. “This is little more than a political ploy by a beleaguered government that has no basis in fact,” she says.
Former foreign affairs adviser Aziz floats the possibility that Khan is looking to the future. “My own view is that he is building a narrative to use in the next election,” he tells TIME, accusing Khan of whipping up anti-American sentiment “for his own political end.”
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In a televised address to the nation on Thursday, Khan solemnly announced that Pakistan was at a crossroads. “This Sunday, the country will discover its fate. Will it continue with the same policy of slavery, with the same corrupt people?” he asked, before promising to fight until the last to foil the “international plot” to remove him.
Leaving abuses of power and conspiracy theories aside, simple pocketbook issues are explanation enough for Khan’s decline, say his political opponents.
“There’s been such a huge rise in inflationary pressure and macroeconomic imbalances that the ordinary person in Pakistan is struggling,” says Sherry Rehman, a Pakistani senator. “Staples like cooking oil, vegetables, meat, gasoline—all of these things have become very sharply priced, and it’s been a very harrowing time for the Pakistani people.”
If Khan loses the no-confidence vote, supporters are confident he will be returned to power in the next general election, which must be held no later than Oct. 12, 2023.
Others, like Shahid Khaqan, who preceded Khan as prime minister, are not so sure.
“He has a legacy of basically nothing,” Khaqan tells TIME. “Did he do anything to ensure posterity? No. Did he do anything to improve the system? No. So I don’t think history will judge him very well. He’ll be another footnote—just another footnote.”
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