Pakistan’s Cricket-Star-Turned-Prime Minister Fights for Survival

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ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Prime Minister Imran Khan of Pakistan is fighting for his political survival after opposition political parties have moved for a no-confidence motion in Parliament and the country’s powerful military has withdrawn its support for his government.

Mr. Khan, the former cricket-star-turned-politician, has announced plans to gather a million supporters in Islamabad, appealed to the Supreme Court to disqualify lawmakers who have defected from his party and denounced his critics as part of an American-influenced conspiracy.

But as demands for his resignation mount, critics and analysts say he has lost his majority in Parliament and these measures are unlikely to change that.

“He rightly senses that the end could be near,” said Arif Rafiq, president of Vizier Consulting, a political risk advisory company in New York. “And he’s a fighter. But it simply just doesn’t look like he’ll have the numbers to survive a vote of no confidence.”

Pakistan, the world’s second-largest Muslim country, has been a reluctant if important American partner in the campaign against terrorism. A nuclear-armed country that backs the Taliban government in neighboring Afghanistan, it has drifted further from the United States under Mr. Khan, embracing a strategic partnership with China and closer ties with Russia.

But the political threats to Mr. Khan are primarily domestic. Pakistan has been buffeted by double-digit inflation, leading to widespread dissatisfaction and fueling criticism that he has mismanaged the economy.

In addition, he has lost the backing of the military, seemingly over his effort to place a loyal aide and former spy chief, Lt. Gen. Faiz Hamid, in charge of the army over the objections of the top brass.

And as opposition parties exploit these weaknesses, Mr. Khan’s scorched-earth politics have left him with few friends and little negotiating room. He has at one time or another jailed most of the major opposition leaders. They are now out on bail but Mr. Khan has threatened to lock them up again.

The denouement is likely to come in a vote in Parliament as soon as next week that, if it goes as expected, would extend Pakistan’s record of never allowing a prime minister to serve a full five-year term. But Mr. Khan’s heavy-handed tactics and the prospect of competing mass rallies in Islamabad this weekend have also raised fears of violence that could upend any democratic process.

Three major allied political parties that are part of the governing coalition have now indicated that they could side with the opposition in the parliamentary vote. That would be enough to topple Mr. Khan’s government.

Opposition leaders also claim to have the support of dozens of dissidents within Mr. Khan’s party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf. Last week, his party was rocked by the defection of at least a dozen lawmakers who accused their leader of failing to tackle inflation.

“The ruling coalition has effectively lost the majority,” Mustafa Nawaz Khokhar, a senator belonging to the opposition Pakistan Peoples Party, said in an interview. “The military also appears to be uninterested in saving Imran Khan. The baggage of economic mismanagement is too much to carry.”

Mr. Khan was elected in 2018, running as a nationalist promising to fight corruption, put the country’s anemic economy back on track and maintain an independent, anti-American foreign policy. But aside from the last, he has struggled to fulfill those promises.

Pakistan’s economic problems are not entirely of his making. Inflation brought on by pandemic-related supply chain troubles is a global problem, as are rising energy costs. He has blamed the previous government for the high foreign debt he inherited.

And true to his blustery, self-righteous style, he has mocked critics who say otherwise.

“I am not here to check tomato and potato prices, but to raise a nation,” he said at a rally in Hafizabad this month. He has accused the opposition of “being bought with looted money” and, to the delight of his supporters, refers to the three main opposition parties as the “three stooges” or “the three mice.”

But he has floundered with economic policy, changing his economic team several times during his first years in office. And while he was able to negotiate a $6 billion bailout from the International Monetary Fund last year, he has acknowledged that it was a mistake not to do so three years ago.

The I.M.F. loan, the first $1 billion of which was agreed to in November, came at the cost of painful economic reforms that have sent fuel and electricity prices soaring. And the fact that the State Bank governor is a former I.M.F. employee has fueled criticism that the I.M.F. is now running the country.

“The government can’t hide behind the excuse of Covid-19 for the price hike and inflation that has battered people from all strata,” Khurram Dastgir Khan, an opposition member of Parliament, said in an interview. “Back in August 2019, the inflation figure crossed 10 percent. The double-digit inflation has not relented since.”

Critics have also accused Mr. Khan of carrying out political vendettas and members of his inner circle have been accused of corruption.

And if Mr. Khan is able to elevate General Hamid, seen by the opposition as Mr. Khan’s political enforcer, as the new army chief, opposition leaders fear further arrests and repression. They have accused General Hamid of manipulating the 2018 general elections in Mr. Khan’s favor, and fear that as army chief he could do so again in the next election.

Mr. Khan and military officials have denied that the military played any role in the election, but the military’s initial backing of Mr. Khan is widely thought to be a major reason for his rise to power.

The current army chief’s term ends in November, and opposition leaders fear that Mr. Khan intends to replace him with General Hamid.

That is a bridge too far for the military, analysts say, and that rift may be the most crucial factor in the current political crisis. The army is used to calling its own shots and has never accepted civilian leaders interfering in its internal matters.

The break between Mr. Khan and the military first surfaced last year, after Mr. Khan resisted the military’s round of routine transfers and insisted that General Hamid continue as spy chief. Mr. Khan lost that battle, and General Hamid was sent off to a posting in Peshawar.

The generals have also expressed dissatisfaction with Mr. Khan’s shambolic governance style and handling of the economy, according to politicians close to the military.

“For over three years, Khan’s coalition government was propped up by the army,” Mr. Rafiq said. “Now the army’s stepped back. Maybe some major political concessions to them could buy him a few additional months.”

Mr. Khan, who has used anti-American rhetoric to his political advantage, has attacked his critics by saying they are supported by foreign powers, namely the United States. Last week at a political rally in Swat, he urged the crowd to support him against “slaves of America.”

While Mr. Khan has had several meetings with Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin, Pakistan’s relations with the United States have chilled and Mr. Khan has yet to speak with President Biden.

In recent speeches, he has emphasized his resistance to American foreign policy, which made Pakistan a base for counterterrorism operations, and his supporters have claimed that the current groundswell of opposition stems from his refusal to allow the United States to use Pakistani bases for operations in Afghanistan. Last June, Mr. Khan said Pakistan would “absolutely not” allow the C.I.A. to use bases inside Pakistan for counterterrorism operations inside Afghanistan.

The opposition has urged a more cooperative relationship with the United States, but Khurram Dastgir Khan, the opposition lawmaker, dismissed the claims of foreign powers being behind the opposition campaign as “absurd.”

“There is no foreign hand,” he said. “The only hands in this episode are the upturned hands of Pakistani people, praying for deliverance from the current government.”

Maleeha Lodhi, a former Pakistani ambassador to the United States and Britain, called the accusations of foreign interference “a classic populist but hollow tactic used by beleaguered governments.”

“This has no basis, but aims to set up an alibi and find external scapegoats if he loses the no-confidence vote,” she said.

The rising tensions have raised fears of violence as both sides engage in heated rhetoric and the political crisis pushes the country toward a new round of instability and turmoil. Opposition politicians are accusing Mr. Khan’s party of using violence to intimidate his critics and opponents.

On Friday, dozens of Mr. Khan’s supporters attacked a building where dissident lawmakers from his party had taken refuge, citing threats to their security. Two of the attackers — lawmakers in Mr. Khan’s party — were arrested but quickly released.

The opposition responded to Mr. Khan’s planned rally in Islamabad by announcing a counterprotest, raising fears of possible violent confrontations.

Human Rights Watch warned last week that both sides should urge their supporters to refrain from violence.

“The government has a responsibility to uphold the Constitution and allow for voting without threats or violence on the no-confidence motion,” the group said in a statement. “Both the government and opposition should send a strong message to their supporters not to subvert the democratic process or sway the vote through intimidation or other criminal acts.”

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