A legal defeat could end Imran Khan’s innings as prime minister of Pakistan
A no-confidence motion is imminentFOUR DAYS of constitutional deadlock in Pakistan have ended with legal defeat for the prime minister, Imran Khan. The former cricket star has fooled countless batsmen with fast-paced balls that swung deceptively in the air. But his latest political trick has not fooled the Supreme Court. Faced with a no-confidence vote in parliament, he claimed to be the victim of an American conspiracy to eject him from office. The deputy speaker of parliament, a close ally, cancelled the vote on April 3rd. Mr Khan dissolved parliament and called for fresh elections. No doubt he hoped that voters would rally round a patriot bullied by a superpower. But there is no evidence whatsoever of an American plot. The opposition cried foul, accusing Mr Khan of violating the constitution to cling to power. They appealed to the Supreme Court as the final umpire. Five judges, led by the chief justice, ruled on April 7th that the deputy speaker was wrong to cancel the no-confidence vote, and ordered parliament to reconvene. All actions taken were “of no legal effect and quashed”, the court said. “The national assembly was at all times, and continues to remain, in session.” Parliamentarians will meet on April 9th so that the vote can proceed.The opposition were elated. Shehbaz Sharif, the brother of Mr Khan’s predecessor and the man most likely to take over as prime minister if the cricketer is dismissed, said the supreme court had “saved Pakistan”. “Democracy is the best revenge!”, added Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, chairman of the Pakistan People’s Party.The parliamentary arithmetic looks bad for Mr Khan. His majority has never been big and he has relied on smaller coalition partners. Some members of his own Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party have defected; some of his allies have abandoned him. His government is blamed for an economy that has been battered by covid-19 and mismanagement. GDP per person fell from $1,500 in 2018 to $1,200 in 2020, and inflation in the year to March was a painful 13%. Perhaps more importantly General Qamar Javed Bajwa, the chief of the army staff, apparently no longer supports him, and without the army’s support Pakistani prime ministers seldom last long. His opponents believe they have more than the 172 votes needed to oust him in the 342-seat house. A new government would probably be a broad coalition led by Mr Sharif.As for Mr Khan, nearly four years after he swept to power on a platform of piety and graft-busting, a return to opposition looms. As a cricketer, he broke records, captaining the team that won the world cup for Pakistan. But he seems unlikely to buck the most daunting statistic in Pakistani politics: no prime minister has ever completed a full five-year term. Still, after the ruling he said he would “continue to fight for Pakistan till the last ball”.Whoever wins this tussle will have to deal with the fallout, which will be tough. The deadlock seemed to accelerate a financial slide. The rupee on April 7th reached a record low of 189 on the interbank rate and 191 in the open market, having fallen 6% in a month. Markets have been spooked by the political uncertainty. An IMF loan facility may be delayed until a new government is picked. The central bank raised interest rates by 250 basis points at an emergency meeting on April 7th, saying it was worried about rising inflation and falling reserves.“After its euphoria subsides, and assuming it wins the no-confidence vote, the current opposition won’t have it easy,” says Michael Kugelman of the Wilson Centre, an American think-tank. “It will face an economic mess and it will be hounded relentlessly by an angry PTI in opposition.” Victory may unite the opposition for a while, but its coalition will probably be fragile. Meanwhile, Mr Khan’s fans are furious. Many believe he really was the victim of a conspiracy. Pakistan’s political turbulence is not over.