ISLAMABAD (AP) — Pakistan’s embattled Prime Minister Imran Khan remained defiant Thursday, telling the nation he would not step down even if he faces a no-confidence vote in parliament and the country’s opposition says it has the numbers to hunt him.
Besieged by the opposition and abandoned by coalition partners, Khan is fighting for his political survival after the opposition called for a vote, which is expected to take place on Sunday.
The opposition accuses him of economic mismanagement and claims he is unfit for the post of prime minister. A parliamentary session which was to debate its role was adjourned Thursday a few minutes after the opening and without any explanation.
Lawmakers were due to meet again on Sunday for a debate and vote on Khan – which could now be a formality as a series of defections appear to have given Khan’s political opponents the 172 votes in the 342-seat house to oust him.
Earlier Thursday, the leader of a key opposition party, Bilawal Bhutto, urged Khan to step down. “You lost . . . You have only one option: resign,” Bhutto said.
But in a video address to the nation Thursday night, Khan struck a defiant tone.
“I will not quit,” the former cricketer-turned-politician said and added, citing a cricketing analogy: “I will fight to the last ball.”
In his speech, Khan lashed out at the United States, saying Washington had conspired with the Pakistani opposition against him and that America wanted “me, personally, to go…and all would be forgiven.”
He claimed that Washington opposed his relentless criticism of the US war on terror – “and not a single Pakistani was involved in the attacks of 9/11” – as well as the drone attacks in Pakistan and his refusal to allow Pakistan to be used for US “over the horizon” missions against terrorist targets in what is now Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.
As for Washington’s dismay at Khan’s visit to Russia on February 24, hours after Russian tanks arrived in Ukraine, Khan said it underscored US attempts to control Pakistan’s foreign policy.
Khan came to power in 2018, promising to rid Pakistan of corruption even as he teamed up with some of the country’s beleaguered old guard. He called them “eligible” – necessary to win elections because their wealth and vast landholdings guaranteed votes in large swaths of the country.
In politics, Khan espoused a more conservative form of Islam. He also kept company with radical clerics, including Maulana Tariq Jameel, who once said women in short skirts were the root of the COVID-19 outbreak.
Still, Khan is credited with building the country’s foreign exchange reserves, now over $18 billion. Remittances from Pakistanis living abroad stood at $29 billion in 2021, despite the economic downturn caused by the pandemic.
Khan’s reputation for fighting corruption encouraged Pakistanis to send money home and he also cracked down on the unofficial money transfer system, known as Hawala. However, the opposition blames it for high inflation and a weak Pakistani rupee.
His handling of the coronavirus pandemic has won him international praise. His implementation of so-called “smart” lockdowns that targeted heavily infected areas – rather than a nationwide shutdown – kept some of the country’s key industries such as construction afloat.
Khan’s oft-stated opposition to Washington’s “war on terror” and the United States’ invasion of Afghanistan won him popularity at home.
He tried to reach out to Afghanistan’s new Taliban leaders, forged close ties with China and Russia, and abstained in the UN Security Council vote condemning Russia for invading the Ukraine. Still, Khan denounced the war and this week called on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in support. The two reportedly spoke for 40 minutes.
Madiha Afzal, a fellow at the Washington-based Brookings Institution, blamed Khan’s political woes on his confrontational style and a cooling of relations between him and the mighty military, which is believed to have been a major contributor to Khan’s election victory in 2018.
Pakistan’s military has been the country’s de facto ruler for more than half of its 75-year history – even when governments are democratically elected, the military maintains considerable behind-the-scenes control, despite its claims of neutrality.
In a Brookings Institution podcast, Afzal said it was rare for a Pakistani political leader to complete his term. “It’s part of a much larger and longer cycle that reflects the inherent political instability in Pakistan,” she said.
“Essentially, opposition parties are not waiting for elections to be held, for the previous party to be eliminated or for prime ministers to be ousted from power,” Afzal added. “While the military says it is neutral in this situation, in this political crisis, what many read as saying is that the military has essentially withdrawn its support for Khan.”
Follow Kathy Gannon on Twitter at www.twitter.com/Kathygannon
Associated Press writer Munir Ahmed in Islamabad contributed to this report.