By Saeed Shah
Islamabad, March 18 (Wall Street Journal): Imran Khan is fighting to hold on to power in Pakistan after a group of lawmakers from his party rebelled and allied parties in his ruling coalition said they were considering ditching him.
The votes are increasingly stacking up against the former cricketing star, whose governing coalition has a thin majority in parliament. A vote that will decide whether he keeps his post is expected later this month. His party is vowing to fight “to the last ball,” using a cricketing analogy.
Democracy remains fragile in Pakistan. No prime minister has managed to serve out the full five-year term, while four military dictators have also ruled the country in its 74-year history.
About a dozen lawmakers from Mr. Khan’s party went into hiding in recent days before emerging Thursday to say that they planned to vote against him. They accuse the government of corruption and say it has failed to address inflation and made poor choices for its ministers. The government rejects those claims.
Opposition parties say they are coming together in an effort to oust Mr. Khan because if he is allowed to appoint a new army chief before the next election in 2023, they fear his choice will help Mr. Khan manipulate the polls in his favor.
Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan, center, has accused the opposition of paying lawmakers in his party to switch sides.
Mr. Khan’s rise to power in 2018 was widely seen as being aided by the country’s military. But more recently, he has been at odds with the military over some of his foreign policies and a key appointment, according to government officials and lawmakers. Some members of the military opposed Mr. Khan’s choice to run the Inter-Services Intelligence, the military’s main spy agency, according to officials and lawmakers. Mr. Khan has also taken a more hawkish stance toward the U.S. and India than some members of the military would prefer.
Now the military appears to be standing aside as lawmakers move against him. “Today we see they are neutral,” said one of the opposition leaders, Fazlur Rehman, referring to the military. “Political players are making their decisions without pressure.”
An adviser to the government said that if the military is now neutral, that represented a big shift from previously backing the government. “When the military withdraws its support, that is a powerful signal,” he said.
The military denies interfering in politics. “The armed forces have no connection to politics, and it will remain that way,” Maj. Gen. Babar Iftikhar, the military spokesman, said last week.
Mr. Khan’s party has defended his record, saying that Pakistan avoided enormous numbers of deaths and Covid-19 infections that other countries saw during the pandemic. They say the country’s economy is rebounding and the government has bolstered the social safety net for the poor, with greater cash handouts and an initiative that allows citizens to use private hospitals at the government’s expense.
Mr. Khan has accused the opposition of paying lawmakers in his party to switch sides. Congratulating the Pakistan cricket team on its performance against the visiting Australian side, he said on Twitter on Thursday: “Unfortunately, I could not watch this match as I am fighting on another front against match fixing where huge amounts of money are being used to lure my players!”
The defecting lawmakers deny taking money from the opposition.
The government has 179 seats in parliament, including 17 allied lawmakers from coalition parties. To show a majority, the government needs 172 seats. In addition to the known rebels from within Mr. Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party, the opposition claims many more are ready to jump ship.
The opposition has 162 seats in parliament, meaning that it needs 10 lawmakers to change loyalties to defeat Mr. Khan in the parliamentary vote.
“It’s all over,” said Farhatullah Babar, a spokesman for the opposition Pakistan Peoples Party.
Chaudhry Fawad Hussain, the information minister, said that the government aims to disqualify the defectors from parliament before they can vote. He said the law didn’t allow lawmakers to vote against their own party.
“You took votes in the name of Imran Khan, and if you are leaving us, then resign,” Mr. Hussain said Thursday.
Mr. Khan’s party has also called for demonstrations from its supporters in front of Parliament, starting the day before the vote, meaning that it could be difficult for opposition and dissident lawmakers to physically reach the building to vote.
Mr. Khan’s coalition partners have publicly said they are weighing their options, with the leader of one of the allied parties saying this week that he found it difficult to see Mr. Khan remaining prime minister.
The opposition is expected to put forward a candidate from the Pakistan Muslim League-N party as its prime minister if it wins the vote in parliament, with party officials saying Shehbaz Sharif is the most likely to be tapped. He is the brother of three-time Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who is living in exile in London after being found guilty of corruption in Pakistan.
The opposition plans to show it has a majority in parliament, which means it can take over the government without calling a fresh election. Polls will be called after some months, opposition lawmakers say.
(Write to Saeed Shah at [email protected])