Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan is struggling to hang on to power after at least a dozen legislators from his ruling party switched sides ahead of a vote of no-confidence against him.
Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party has been leading a coalition government since 2018 with a thin majority in parliament. In recent days, allied parties have also publicly threatened to part ways over policy disputes, exacerbating the political troubles facing the former cricketing star.
Earlier this month, opposition parties jointly moved up the no-confidence motion to oust the prime minister, accusing him of misrule and mismanaging the economy and foreign policy. The vote is expected later this month or in early April.
Khan and his ministers reject the charges and accuse the opposition of bribing PTI legislators to encourage defections.
The dissidents and political opponents both have dismissed the bribery accusations as an attempt by the prime minister to cling to power.
On Friday, the government announced it will petition the Supreme Court as early as Monday to seek a ruling on whether the defecting lawmakers are eligible to retain their seats and cast a vote after switching sides.
Pakistan’s floor-crossing law states that parliamentarians who vote against their party could lose their seats. Khan’s advisers say they want the country’s top court to interpret the law to see whether it also applies before the defecting lawmakers cast votes.
Raoof Hasan, a special assistant to Khan on information, said the prime minister has decided “not to succumb” to any pressure.
“Using all our democratic, legal and constitutional options, we’ll wage the fight -- be it against attempts to blackmail by any of our coalition partners, or blatant horse-trading by the corrupt coalition of the opposition parties,” Hasan told VOA.
“We will ensure that we don’t allow these parties to push the country back into the pit of trading in people’s conscience for political gains. This will be a game-changing fight,” he added.
Khan defends his government’s performance, saying Pakistan’s economy has recovered from the near bankruptcy he inherited from his predecessors. He also cites health insurance for Pakistanis at government’s expense, along with other social welfare projects aimed at poverty-stricken families, and successfully tackling the COVID-19 outbreak in the country.
Dozens of PTI workers led by two lawmakers Friday evening stormed an official compound in Islamabad where the defecting lawmakers have been housed by opposition parties, citing security concerns. Police intervened to disperse the protesters and briefly detained some of them.
The attack in a high-security zone of the capital came a day after the lawmakers who deserted Khan released videos and invited journalists to the compound to announce they planned to vote against the prime minister. The rebels accused Khan of not addressing their grievances and inflation, putting them under pressure from their voters.
The prime minister needs 172 votes to defeat the no-confidence motion in the National Assembly, or lower house of parliament. But he is likely to fall short of that number without the allied parties and the dissidents amid opposition claims that many more PTI legislators are preparing to switch sides.
The joint opposition has at least 163 seats in the assembly and needs around 10 more to take over the government. The next general elections are due in 2023.
Civil-military tensions have long been blamed for Pakistan’s fragile democracy, although it is not known whether the powerful military is behind the current political turmoil.
Opposition leaders have repeatedly claimed in recent statements that Khan has lost the support of the army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa. The government and the military deny the charges as politically motivated.
“The armed forces have nothing to do with politics, and it will remain that way,” army spokesperson Major-General Babar Iftikhar told reporters last week when asked to respond to opposition claims. "I will again request that there should be no unnecessary speculation or discussion on it," Iftikhar added.
Critics, however, remain skeptical about the military’s role in the ongoing political upheaval in Pakistan.
“The opposition should absolutely take political advantage of the government’s ineptitude,” tweeted Mosharraf Zaidi, a political commentator and columnist.
“But the current political crisis should not be marketed as some sort of democratic victory, nor should any advocate of civilian supremacy be proud of how & where this crisis was fertilized,” Zaidi said.
The nuclear-armed South Asian nation has experienced four military coups in its 74 years history, and army generals continue to indirectly influence elected governments over security and foreign policy-related matters, say Pakistani politicians and analysts.