Imran Khan Ousted as Pakistan’s Prime Minister

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ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Imran Khan, the former international cricket star turned politician who oversaw a new era of Pakistan’s foreign policy that distanced the country from the United States, was removed as prime minister early on Sunday after losing a no-confidence vote in Parliament.

The vote, coming amid soaring inflation and a rift between Mr. Khan’s government and the military, capped a political crisis that has embroiled the country for weeks and came down to the wire in a parliamentary session that dragged into the early morning hours. Pakistan remains in a state of turmoil as it heads into an early election season in the coming months.

Pakistan, a nuclear-armed nation with the world’s second-largest Muslim population, has struggled with instability and military coups since its founding 75 years ago. While no prime minister in Pakistan has ever completed a full five-year term in office, Mr. Khan is the first to be removed in a no-confidence vote.

The motion to oust Mr. Khan was passed with 174 votes, two more than the requisite simple majority.

Analysts expect that lawmakers will choose the opposition leader Shehbaz Sharif, a member of a Pakistani political dynasty, to serve as interim prime minister until the next general election, probably in October. Mr. Khan is expected to run in that election as well.

The vote in Parliament began just before midnight on Saturday after a chaotic day of political scrambling in the capital, Islamabad, as Mr. Khan’s allies appeared to be trying to delay a decision — stoking fears that the military might intervene.

Late Saturday night, with the two political factions at an impasse, the country’s powerful Army chief met with Mr. Khan.

The Supreme Court also signaled that it would open at midnight, should the court need to intervene. Police officers and prison vans waited outside the Parliament building lest the proceedings turned violent.

At 11:45 p.m., in protest of the no-confidence vote, lawmakers in Mr. Khan’s political coalition stormed out of the National Assembly hall.

Opposition lawmakers then proceeded with the no-confidence vote.

Mr. Khan has repeatedly said that the opposition’s moves against him were part of a United States-backed conspiracy to oust him from power and he called for his supporters to protest on Sunday.

“Your future is at stake,” Mr. Khan said in a televised address on Friday night. “If you do not take a stand to protect the sovereignty of our country, we will continue to remain subservient.” He added: “The nation has to rise together to save Pakistan.”

Mr. Khan, 69, had parlayed his athletic stardom into a populist political career, promising to rid the country of endemic corruption, set the sputtering economy back on track, and build a “new Pakistan” that he described as an Islamist welfare state.

But economic realities, including huge government debt and three straight years of double-digit inflation, thwarted his plans and undermined his popularity. Tackling corruption proved easier said than done. His shift away from the West and closer to China and Russia was polarizing.

And, perhaps most crucially, he appeared to have lost the support of the country’s powerful military in a dispute over its leadership.

That paved the way for a coalition of opposition parties to mount a no-confidence motion last month. But in a stunning bid to block the vote, he and his allies dissolved Parliament moments before it was expected to take place on April 3.

The Supreme Court on Thursday declared that Mr. Khan’s move violated the Constitution, and it ordered the vote to proceed on Saturday.

The public rebuke to his leadership from both the country’s courts and lawmakers, including some of his allies, has cost him significant political capital and eroded the aura of indomitability he had maintained for years.

But in a country where ousted political leaders are known to return in second and even third acts, Mr. Khan has shown no signs of backing down, and most analysts expect that he will run in the next elections.

“I don’t think that Imran is out of Pakistan’s politics,” said Ayesha Siddiqa, a political analyst at SOAS University of London. “He’s already in a better position, he’s completely distracted attention from inflation, from the economy, to this question of foreign conspiracy, and it’s benefiting him.”

Born to an affluent family in Lahore, Mr. Khan first rose to prominence in the late 1970s as an international cricket star, becoming the face of the sport at a time when cricketers from the former British Empire were beginning to regularly beat their former colonizer. Mr. Khan helped lead Pakistan to win the Cricket World Cup in 1992 — the country’s greatest sporting achievement.

His success on the cricket field and upper-class upbringing gave him a life of privilege and glamour. Throughout the 1980s, Mr. Khan was a regular fixture in London’s fashionable crowd, and he earned a reputation as a playboy.

In 1996, he turned to politics, establishing his own party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, pitching himself as a reformer and promising an alternative to Pakistan’s entrenched political dynasties.

Despite his mass popularity and appeal, he struggled to make political inroads for over a decade. He was mocked for his political ambitions and for the blatant contradictions between his lavish lifestyle and his efforts to rebrand himself as a devout Muslim who identified with the poor and disavowed his English-speaking peers.

But by 2011, Mr. Khan seemed to find his political footing. His rallies began to draw hundreds of thousands of Pakistanis from the urban middle-class and educated young people who felt disgruntled with the system and energized by his populist, anti-corruption message and his criticism of the United States.

In 2018, he was elected prime minister — a victory many of his rivals attributed to a back room deal struck with the military. Politicians with other parties described a campaign of coercion and intimidation by the security forces that effectively narrowed the election field and sent a message that opposition to Mr. Khan was strongly discouraged. Military officials have denied those accusations, as have Mr. Khan and his aides.

But analysts said that he also over-promised, backing incoherent, often contradictory policies: He supported a deregulated, free-market economy but also a welfare state. He publicly opposed Islamic militance but his government and the military establishment provided a safe haven for the Taliban in northwestern Pakistan.

In a desperate bid to stabilize the economy, he turned to the International Monetary Fund for a $6 billion rescue package in 2019, a move many saw as betraying his election promise to never take foreign loans and aid.

As criticism of his leadership mounted, Mr. Khan’s government led a growing clampdown on dissent. Opposition parties criticized his anti-corruption drive as one-sided, accusing him of going after his opponents with a vengeance while turning a blind eye to accusations that swirled around his cabinet members and close friends. Still, unlike many of his predecessors, he has not been accused of corruption himself.

Human rights groups criticized his government for cracking down on the media, in particular. Several leading journalists known to be critical of Mr. Khan lost their jobs; others were intimidated, detained and threatened in organized social media campaigns, according to Human Rights Watch.

Still, his supporters have defended his record, which includes doling out government subsidies, building shelters and soup kitchens for the poor, and providing health care to low and middle-income households.

During his term, Pakistan weathered the coronavirus pandemic relatively well, spared the devastation witnessed in some other parts of the world despite early problems with an overwhelmed and undersupplied health care system. Mr. Khan attributed the success to a well-coordinated national effort, amplified by help from the military.

But his foreign policy decisions became a point of contention.

Seeking more independence from the West, he disengaged from the so-called war on terrorism. Last June, he said Pakistan would “absolutely not” allow the C.I.A. to use bases inside Pakistan for counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan. After the Taliban seized power in Afghanistan last year, even before American troops and officials had fully withdrawn from the country, he praised Afghans for having “broken the chains of slavery.”

But the critical blow to his leadership came last year after Pakistan’s military leaders appeared to withdraw their support, undercutting the political stability he had enjoyed for most of his tenure.

In recent months, the military establishment has eased its grip on opposition parties, analysis say, paving the way for the no-confidence motion. Days before the vote was expected take place last Sunday, Mr. Khan appeared to have lost a majority in Parliament and was facing demands to resign.

But he remained defiant, accusing his opponents of being pawns in a U.S.-led plot to remove him, and claiming that a communiqué from a former Pakistani ambassador to the United States contained proof of a conspiracy. He urged Pakistanis to stand up to the “forces of evil” and exhorted them to stand against his opponents, whom he called “slaves of America.”

Shehbaz Sharif is expected to take over as interim prime minister until the next general election. Mr. Sharif is the younger brother of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and a former chief minister of Punjab, the country’s most populous and prosperous province.

The interim government he is expected to lead will inherit significant challenges, from soaring inflation to an increasingly polarized political climate that could spiral into unrest on the street.

“This crisis has created serious problems for Pakistan, with respect to the economy, political polarization and our foreign policy,” said Ijaz Khan, the former chairman of the department of international relations at the University of Peshawar. “Leading the country out of that will be a serious challenge for any future government.”

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