Tens of thousands of supporters of Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan gathered in the capital, Islamabad, Sunday to rally behind the embattled leader who faces a no-confidence vote in parliament, which is likely to take place by April 4.
Opposition parties have jointly moved the no-confidence motion in the legislative lower house or the National Assembly, to try to oust the former cricketing star, accusing him of misruling the country and mismanaging the economy and foreign policy.
While addressing Sunday’s massive rally, which his ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) had organized to demonstrate a show of political strength, Khan strongly rejected the allegations and vowed to win the vote in what analysts said might be the most serious challenge to his leadership since he came to power in 2018.
The prime minister claimed that the opposition’s no-trust 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 alleged.
“We have been threatened in writing, but we will not compromise on national interests,” he told the crowd. “I am not levelling mere accusations, I have this letter as proof,” Khan said showing to his audience what he said was a copy of the letter.
The Pakistani leader said some "foreign forces” don’t want his government to pursue an independent foreign policy. He did not elaborate.
“The times have changed now. … We will make everyone our friends (but) will not be their slaves,” Khan said.
Opposition leaders and independent analysts said Khan has lost the support of the country’s powerful military, which allegedly orchestrated his election victory, encouraging the opposition to bring the no-confidence vote against him.
Several PTI lawyers have switched sides ahead of the crucial vote while coalition partners also have threatened to part ways over policy disputes, raising questions about the fate of the Khan government, which has a thin majority in parliament.
The National Assembly is expected to open a debate on the no-confidence motion Monday that may last several days before the house speaker sets the date for the vote.
Until the submission of the no-trust motion earlier this month, Khan’s party, along with coalition partners, held 179 seats in the 342-member house.
The opposition, which collectively has just over 160 seats, requires a simple majority or 172 votes to topple the prime minister. The next general elections are due in Pakistan in 2023.
The government has also petitioned the Supreme Court, seeking 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 has routinely addressed public rallies in recent days where he has criticized Western diplomats for writing an open letter to his administration to demand Islamabad condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Pakistan has avoided criticism of Moscow and instead urged both warring sides to find a negotiated settlement to the conflict.
Khan visited President Vladimir Putin on February 24 shortly after the Russian leader ordered his forces to attack Ukraine. The Pakistani leader defended his trip, saying it was planned months before the Ukraine conflict broke out.
While Pakistan has cemented ties with China and seeks to improve relations with Russia, its fragile relations with the U.S. have been strained over allegations the Taliban toppled the now-defunct Western-backed government in neighboring Afghanistan with covert support from the Pakistani military.
Khan, 69, has repeatedly and publicly criticized Washington for blaming his country for what he claims was an outcome of flawed U.S. military policies in dealing with Afghan security challenges.
The Pakistani leader was elected after promising to end corruption and carry out key reforms to address long-running economic challenges facing his country. His government has brought corruption cases against political opponents but has not succeeded in securing convictions.
Michael Kugelman of the Washington-based Wilson Center saw Khan’s speech on Sunday as a campaign rally.
“Khan and his party are now taking the long view. They wanted to hold a large rally to showcase the public will in advance of the no-confidence vote, but also to highlight Khan’s clout in advance of Pakistan’s next election, whenever that may be,” Kugelman said.
“And he hit all the right notes for his support base: He highlighted his government’s achievements and resorted to the populist rhetoric that fires up his support base,” he noted.
“It made for a strong speech by a leader who is fighting for his political life now but intends to keep fighting even if he loses the no confidence vote,” Kugelman said.