ISLAMABAD, April 3 (Reuters) – Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan sought fresh elections on Sunday after surviving a move to oust him, getting a reprieve in parliament but setting up fresh political and constitutional uncertainty in the nuclear-armed country of 220 million people.
Khan’s fate was not immediately clear after the deputy speaker of parliament, a member of his political party, blocked a no-confidence motion as unconstitutional.
President Arif Alvi approved the request to dissolve parliament and Khan called on the nation to prepare for fresh elections. But the opposition vowed to challenge the block on their vote to oust Khan, which many had expected him to lose.
President Dr Arif Alvi on Sunday dissolved the National Assembly on Prime Minister Imran Khan’s advice under Article 58 of the Constitution.
“The president of Pakistan, Dr Arif Alvi, has approved the advice of the prime minister of Pakistan to dissolve the National Assembly under the Article 58 (1) read with Article 48(1) of the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan,” according to a statement issued by the President’s Secretariat.
Earlier today, Prime Minister Imran, in an address to the nation, said he had advised the president to “dissolve assemblies”.
According to Article 58, “The president shall dissolve the National Assembly if so advised by the prime minister; and the National Assembly shall, unless sooner dissolved, stand dissolved at the expiration of forty-eight hours after the prime minister has so advised.”
The premier’s announcement came moments after National Assembly Deputy Speaker Qasim Suri, who was chairing today’s session, dismissed the no-confidence motion against Prime Minister Imran Khan, terming it a contradiction of Article 5 of the Constitution, which says loyalty to the state is the basic duty of every citizen.
The government claims that the no-trust motion against the premier was a “foreign funded conspiracy”, citing a ‘threat letter’ that was received from a foreign country through Pakistan’s ambassador, asking for the removal of PM Imran.
Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, head of the opposition Pakistan People’s Party, promised a sit-in at the parliament and told reporters, “We are also moving to the Supreme Court today.”
Opposition leader Shehbaz Sharif, the front-runner to replace Khan is he were removed, called the parliamentary block “nothing short of high treason”.
“There will be consequences for blatant & brazen violation of the Constitution,” Sharif said on Twitter, saying he hoped the Supreme Court would play a role to uphold the Constitution.
The opposition blames Khan for failing to revive the economy and crack down on corruption. He has said, without citing evidence, that the move to oust him was orchestrated by the United States, a claim Washington denies.
The opposition and analysts say Khan, an international cricket champion turned politician who rose to power in 2018 on the powerful military’s support, had fallen out with it, a charge he and the military deny.
No prime minister has finished a full five-year term since Pakistan’s independence from Britain in 1947, and generals on several occasions have ruled the country, which is perennially at odds with fellow nuclear-armed neighbour India.
State Minister for Information Farrukh Habib said fresh elections would be held in 90 days, although that decision rests with the president and the election commission.
Khan’s cabinet was dissolved but he will remain prime minister, said Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry said in a tweet.
Deputy Attorney General Raja Khalid, a top prosecutor, resigned, calling the government’s parliamentary move unconstitutional. “What has happened can only be expected in the rule of a dictator,” he told local media.
TOUGH VOTE AVOIDED, FOR NOW
Pakistan’s potential fresh instability comes as it faces high inflation, dwindling foreign reserves and widening increasing deficits. The country is in the middle of a tough International Monetary Fund bailout programme.
In addition to economic crisis, Islamabad faces challenges including an attempt to balance global pressure to prod the Taliban in neighbouring Afghanistan to meet human rights commitments while trying to limit instability there.
Khan lost his majority in parliament after allies quit his coalition government and he suffered a spate of defections within his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party.
If Sunday’s vote had gone through and the opposition remained united, Khan, who recently lost his parliamentary majority, would have been out of office.
A prominent newspaper had recently said Khan was “as good as gone”, but he had urged his supporters to take to the streets on Sunday ahead of the planned vote.
Instead, legislators from Khan’s party shouted, “A friend of America is a traitor” to Pakistan, as they gathered before the speaker’s dais. Deputy Speaker Qasim Suri announced the no-confidence motion was against the constitution.
Opposition benches, appearing shocked by the unexpected move, mostly remained seated.
On the streets of the capital Islamabad, there was a heavy police and paramilitary presence, with shipping containers used to block off roads, according to a Reuters witness.
Police were seen detaining three supporters of Khan’s ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party outside parliament, but the streets were otherwise calm.