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Pakistan’s president dissolved parliament on Sunday, setting the stage for a snap election after the prime minister dodged a no-confidence move earlier in the day.
Imran Khan has called on President Arif Alvi to dissolve the National Assembly, or legislative lower house of parliament, accusing his political opposition of working with the United States to overthrow his government.
Pakistan’s constitution calls for the establishment of an interim government to lead the country to elections, which must be held within 90 days. According to the constitution, the interim government must be established with input from the opposition.
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Khan’s political opponents called the Deputy Speaker of Parliament’s decision to reject their no-confidence resolution illegal and vowed to go to the Supreme Court.
The battle between Khan, a cricket star turned conservative Islamic leader, and his political opposition has thrown the nation into political turmoil.
The vice president rejected the opposition’s no-confidence resolution after Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry accused the opposition of colluding with a foreign power to engineer “regime change”.
Khan, who was not in parliament, went on national television to say he would ask Pakistan’s president to disband the body and hold elections.
“I ask people to prepare for the next elections. Thank God a plot to overthrow the government has failed,” Khan said in his speech.
The opposition arrived in parliament ready to oust Khan from power, and his small but major coalition partners, along with 17 members of his own party, joined the opposition in ousting him. They needed a simple majority of 172 votes in Pakistan’s 342-seat parliament.
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Political unrest has also prompted the country’s security agencies to lock down the capital Islamabad.
Giant metal containers blocked roads and entrances to the capital’s diplomatic enclave, parliament and other sensitive government facilities in the capital. A defiant Khan had called on his supporters to stage protests across the country.
Khan accused the opposition of colluding with the United States to overthrow him, saying America wanted him to review its foreign policy choices that often favor China and Russia. Khan has also been a vocal opponent of the US War on Terror and Pakistan’s partnership in that war with Washington.
Khan circulated a memo that he said provides evidence that Washington conspired with the Pakistani opposition to overthrow him because America wants “me, personally, gone…and all would be forgiven.”
The political chaos has also spread to the country’s largest province of Punjab, which is due to vote for a new chief minister. Khan’s choice faced a tough challenge and his opponents claimed they had enough votes to install their choice.
With 60% of Pakistan’s 220 million people living in Punjab, it is considered the most powerful of the country’s four provinces. Also, on Sunday, the government announced the dismissal of the provincial governor, whose role is largely ceremonial and who is chosen by the federal government. But it has further aggravated the political turmoil in Pakistan.
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Pakistan’s main opposition parties, whose ideologies range from left to right to religious radicals, have been mobilizing for Khan’s ouster almost since his election in 2018.
Khan’s victory was mired in controversy amid widespread accusations that Pakistan’s mighty military helped his Pakistani Tehreek Insaf (Justice) party to victory.
Asfandyar Mir, a senior expert with the Washington-based American Institute for Peace, said the military’s involvement in the 2018 elections undermined Khan’s legitimacy from the start.
“The movement against Imran Khan’s government is inseparable from his controversial rise to power in the 2018 elections, which was manipulated by the military to push Khan over the line,” Mir said. “It really undermined the legitimacy of the electoral exercise and created the basis for the current turmoil.”
The Pakistani military has directly ruled Pakistan for more than half of its 75-year history, toppling successive democratically elected governments. During the remainder of this period, he indirectly manipulated elected governments on the fringes.
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The opposition also accused Khan of economic mismanagement, blaming him for rising prices and high inflation. Yet the Khan government is credited with maintaining an $18 billion foreign exchange reserve account and bringing in a record $29 billion last year from overseas Pakistanis.
Khan’s anti-corruption reputation is credited with encouraging expatriate Pakistanis to send money home. His government has also received international praise for its handling of the COVID-19 crisis and implementing so-called “smart lockdowns” rather than nationwide shutdowns. As a result, several key industries in Pakistan, such as construction, have survived.
Khan’s leadership style has often been criticized as confrontational.
“Khan’s greatest failure was his insistence on remaining a partisan leader to the bitter end,” said Michael Kugelman, deputy Asia program director at the Washington-based Wilson Center.
“He didn’t want to reach out to his rivals,” Kugelman said. “He has remained stubborn and unwilling to make major compromises. As a result, he has cut too many bridges at a time when he badly needs all the help he can get.”
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Khan’s insistence on US involvement in attempts to overthrow him taps into a deep-rooted mistrust among many Pakistanis of US intentions, particularly after 9/11, Mir said.
Washington has often chastised Pakistan for doing too little to fight Islamic militants even as thousands of Pakistanis have died in militant attacks and the army has lost more than 5,000 troops. Pakistan has been attacked for aiding Taliban insurgents while being asked to bring them to the peace table.
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“The fact that he has such easy traction in Pakistan speaks to some of the damage done by US foreign policy post-9/11 in general and Pakistan in particular,” Mir said. “There is a reservoir of anti-American sentiment in the country, which can be easily exploited by politicians like Khan.”