Pakistan’s embattled prime minister, Imran Khan, received a serious political blow to his government Wednesday when another main coalition partner decided to join opposition groups seeking to oust him through a no-confidence vote due early next week.
The Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) party, Khan's largest ally in the legislative National Assembly, the lower house of parliament, announced Wednesday it had resigned from the federal cabinet after reaching a deal with the united opposition.
Political opponents accuse the 69-year-old former cricket star of misruling the country and mismanaging the economy and foreign affairs, charges Khan vehemently rejects.
Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party won the 2018 general election but fell short of receiving a simple majority in the 342-member house, forcing him to form a coalition government with the help of political allies, including the MQM. Earlier in the week, the PTI lost the support of another regional ally, the Balochistan Awami Party (BAP).
At least a dozen PTI lawmakers have already defected to the opposition and more are expected to do so ahead of the crucial no confidence vote, leaving the prime minister well short of 172 votes, a simple majority he needs to stay in office.
Opposition parities have consistently accused the powerful military, which has ruled Pakistan for almost half of its existence and allegedly continues to pressure elected governments from behind the scenes in policy making affairs, of manipulating the 2018 election to pave the way for Khan to rise to power.
However, opposition leaders and analysts lately have said that Khan lost the support of the military chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, over key security appointments and foreign policy matters, encouraging opponents to launch the no confidence proceedings against the prime minister.
The military denies any interference in the country’s political affairs and has publicly stated it has nothing to do with the current political turmoil.
On Wednesday Khan again alleged in a nationally televised speech at a ceremony in Islamabad that the opposition’s no confidence vote had stemmed from a “foreign-funded conspiracy” to dislodge his government.
“People do lose confidence in their party and a no confidence motion is part of the democratic process,” the prime minister said.
“But this is a foreign imported conspiracy and it started when people from abroad started controlling Pakistan through telephone calls. They cannot tolerate a (Pakistani) leadership that works in the people's interest,” Khan asserted without elaborating.
Without naming the United States, he reiterated his criticism of the U.S.-led war in neighboring Afghanistan, saying Pakistan had to pay a “heavy price” for participating in it.
"We sacrificed our interests for those abroad and they never even appreciated it," Khan said. He went on to announce that he would show to senior journalists later on Wednesday a “letter” Khan brandished at a recent public rally in Islamabad, purportedly containing "evidence of the foreign conspiracy” against his government.
"We want to protect the nation and can't divulge the details in public. People think this is a joke and I have decided to share it with top journalists,” the prime minister said.
No Pakistani prime minister has ever completed a five-year term because of what critics cite as direct and indirect military intervention. The removal of Khan’s government would come more than a year before the country’s next general election. It would also mark the first time ever that an elected chief executive would be forced from office through a no confidence vote.
The National Assembly will start a debate on the no-confidence motion Thursday and a vote is expected by Monday. Khan also convened a cabinet meeting Wednesday.
The main opposition parties leading the campaign to bring down the government are the Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N) led by self-exiled Nawaz Sharif, who has been prime minister three times, and the Pakistan Peoples Party, headed jointly by former president Asif Ali Zardari and his son, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari.
Addressing a joint news conference in Islamabad on Wednesday, Bilawal Zardari announced that Shehbaz Sharif, the president of the PML-N and leader of the joint opposition, “will soon take over as the next prime minister of Pakistan.” He also demanded Khan immediately step down from office for losing support from the majority of lawmakers.
Pakistan’s latest political turmoil comes amid rising inflation and deepening economic troubles, which Khan blames on rampant corruption under previous administrations and repeated pandemic-related lockdowns over the past couple of years.
Khan's government is working with the International Monetary Fund to secure the next tranche of a $6 billion bailout package to shore up the country's dwindling foreign currency reserves.