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Pakistan PM’s future in doubt as coalition ally switches sides

Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan's future looked increasingly in doubt Wednesday after a key coalition partner switched allegiance ahead of a parliamentary no-confidence vote this weekend.

Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan (C) along with other lawmakers, gestures upon his arrival to address the supporters of ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party during a rally in Islamabad on March 27, 2022. (Photo by Aamir QURESHI / AFP)

Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan’s future looked increasingly in doubt Wednesday after a key coalition partner switched allegiance ahead of a parliamentary no-confidence vote this weekend.

The cricket-star-turned premier was expected to address the nation in the evening, as weeks of political turmoil come to a head — including allegations of foreign interference.

No prime minister in the country’s history has seen out a full term, and Khan is facing the biggest challenge to his rule since being elected in 2018, with opponents accusing him of economic mismanagement and foreign-policy bungling.

“He will fight until the last over and the last ball,” Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed told reporters, using a cricket analogy to describe Khan — one of the sport’s all-time international greats before he entered politics.

Debate on the no-confidence motion is due to start Thursday, leaving Khan scrambling to keep his own Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) members on side — as well as a slew of minority parties.

On paper the PTI and coalition partners have 176 seats in the 342-member assembly, but on Wednesday the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM-P) said its seven lawmakers would vote with the opposition, which has a combined 163 seats.

More than a dozen PTI lawmakers have also indicated they will cross the floor, although party leaders are trying to get the courts to prevent them from voting on Sunday.

In the past, Pakistan parties have also resorted to physically preventing lawmakers from voting against key legislation by blocking access to the national assembly, leading to cat-and-mouse chases and even accusations of kidnapping.

Senior MQM-P leader Faisal Subzwari tweeted Wednesday that his party had finalised an agreement with the opposition, led by the Pakistan People Party (PPP) and Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N).

Hours later, MQM-P heavyweight Syed Amin-Ul-Haque announced his resignation as tech minister in Khan’s cabinet.

Feuding dynasties
The PML-N and PPP dominated national politics for decades until Khan forged a coalition against the usually feuding dynastic groups.

He was elected after promising to sweep away decades of entrenched corruption and cronyism, but has struggled to maintain support with inflation skyrocketing, a feeble rupee and crippling debt.

Some analysts say Khan has also lost the crucial support of the military — claims both sides deny — and Pakistan’s army is key to political power.

There have been four military coups — and at least as many unsuccessful ones — since independence in 1947, and the country has spent more than three decades under army rule.

If Khan loses next week’s vote, a new government could be headed by PML-N’s Shehbaz Sharif, the brother of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, who has not returned since being released from jail to get medical treatment abroad.

Also given a senior role will likely be the PPP’s Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, son of assassinated former prime minister Benazir Bhutto and ex-President Asif Zardari.

One card up Khan’s sleeve could be to call an early election — the next one must be held before October 2023.

“The best option in this situation would have been fresh elections to enable the new government to handle economic, political and external problems faced by the country,” said political analyst Talat Masood, a retired general.

“The country is heading towards something unpredictable… where there is going to be a lot of chaos and problems.”

Hassan Askari, another political analyst, agreed.

“The long-term political repercussion of the evolving situation will be instability, continued conflict in politics and inability to cope with economic challenges that Pakistan is currently facing,” he said.

Khan has railed against his domestic opponents for weeks, but on Sunday told a rally in the capital that a “foreign conspiracy” was also plotting his removal.

“We have been threatened in writing but we will not compromise on national interests,” he said, without offering evidence or details.

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