Pakistan's parliament Monday began a no-confidence vote process aimed at ousting Prime Minister Imran Khan for allegedly misruling the country.
Opposition parties have jointly moved the no-confidence resolution in the legislative lower House of Parliament, known as the National Assembly. The 342-member house will begin a debate on the motion Thursday and a vote is expected to be held in the following days.
"The prime minister ceases to hold his office after he has lost the confidence of this house," opposition leader Shehbaz Sharif said, reading from the no-confidence motion broadcast live on television.
Khan, who formed a coalition government with a thin majority after his party won the 2018 general elections, is facing what analysts say is the most serious political challenge to his rule. He has rejected allegations of misrule and vowed to defeat the no-confidence move.
The 69-year-old former cricket star says his government continues to enjoy the support of a majority of lawmakers despite recent defections in his ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party.
But several PTI lawmakers have switched sides ahead of the crucial vote while coalition partners also have threatened to part ways over policy disputes, leaving Khan short of 172 votes, a simple majority he needs to hold on to power.
Opposition leaders and independent analysts said Khan has lost the support of the country's powerful military, which allegedly orchestrated his election victory, encouraging his political opponents to launch the no-confidence proceedings.
However, the government late Monday struck a deal with one of its key estranged partners, the Pakistan Muslim League-Q, and agreed to give it the post of chief minister of the country's most populous Punjab province. Analysts described the deal as a major blow to supporters of the no-confidence vote.
The opposition, which collectively has 163 seats, responded by saying it can still get a simple majority to topple the government, although no prime minister in Pakistan has ever been removed from office by such a vote.
The political turmoil comes amid rising inflation and Pakistan's deepening economic troubles, which the government 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.
On Sunday, Khan addressed a massive rally of his supporters in the capital, Islamabad, where he alleged that the opposition's no-confidence motion had stemmed from a "foreign conspiracy" aimed at dislodging his government.
"Funding is being channeled into Pakistan from abroad in an attempt to change the government. Our own people are being used," Khan claimed without elaborating.
Sharif denied the allegations while talking to reporters Monday and demanded the prime minister bring proof to the parliament to substantiate what he said were baseless claims.
Some Pakistani political commentators and politicians in local media talk shows have suggested the military could be behind the no-confidence move against Khan. They have cited differences over the recent appointment of the intelligence chief and an increasingly anti-West stance by the prime minister.
"The forces who set this stage, it seems, are unable to control the situation anymore. This, overall, is better for Pakistan's democratic evolution," observed Ayaz Amir, in his prime time talk show on Dunya news channel. Amir did not name the military.
The military, which has staged several coups against elected governments that led to prolonged dictatorial rules in Pakistan, has denied it is behind the political turmoil.
Pakistan has traditionally sided with the West and it is a major non-NATO ally.
The Khan government, however, abstained from voting earlier this month as the United Nations General Assembly overwhelmingly condemned Russia for invading Ukraine.
The prime minister has since routinely addressed public rallies where he has criticized Western diplomats in Islamabad for writing an open letter to his administration to demand Islamabad condemn Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
Khan visited President Vladimir Putin on February 24 shortly after the Russian leader ordered his forces to attack Ukraine. Khan defended his trip, saying it was planned months before the Russia-Ukraine conflict broke out.