Pakistan’s Supreme Court Blocks Imran Khan’s Move to Stay in Power

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Pakistan’s Supreme Court on Thursday overturned Prime Minister Imran Khan’s move to dissolve Parliament, setting the stage for a no-confidence vote widely expected to remove him from office and offering a major victory to opposition leaders, who said that Mr. Khan had attempted an “open coup.”

Mr. Khan, the international cricket-star-turned-politician, and his allies dissolved Parliament on Sunday, effectively blocking a no-confidence vote. The move plunged the country into a constitutional crisis and sharply escalated the political instability that has embroiled Pakistan for weeks.

The recent developments have revived fears of unrest in the nuclear-armed nation of 220 million that has experienced repeated military coups since its founding 75 years ago.

The prospect of Mr. Khan being ousted by opposition parties, former allies and defectors from within his own party in Parliament is likely to damage his ability to rally widespread support ahead of the next elections. While no prime minister in Pakistan has ever completed a full five-year term in office, Mr. Khan would be the first to be removed in a no-confidence vote.

In its verdict Thursday, the court agreed that the move violated the Constitution and ordered the no-confidence vote take place on Saturday morning. If he loses that vote, as expected, an interim government will be formed and the country will prepare for elections in the coming months.

The ruling seemed to turn the political tides for the opposition parties, which had been taken aback when Mr. Khan evaded the no-confidence vote on Sunday. In the days since, Mr. Khan, a populist leader, had dominated the political narrative and rallied support around his allegations of an American-led conspiracy against him.

Now, it is likely that both the opposition and Mr. Khan must turn their attention to new elections. They will be a referendum on Mr. Khan’s political brinkmanship after a public rebuke to his leadership from both the country’s courts and lawmakers, including some of his political allies.

“Imran Khan will lose face,” said Ayesha Siddiqa, a research associate at SOAS University of London. “It will become very clear that he lost the confidence of the Parliament, including members of his own party.”

The elections will also test whether the coalition of opposition parties — typically at loggerheads, but teaming up around the goal of the no-confidence vote — can remain united.

In a country where the military controls the main levers of power, the elections are also widely seen as an opportunity for military leaders to choose and elevate new political partners.

“Pakistani politics has two parallel strands,” said Arifa Noor, an Islamabad-based political analyst. “One is public support, and the other is military. One without the other doesn’t land you in the big seat.”

Moments after the court issued its ruling, opposition supporters flooded the street outside the Supreme Court in Islamabad and erupted in cheers. Pumping their fists in the air, they shouted: “Long live the Constitution!” and “Go Imran Go!”

Speaking to reporters, the opposition leader Shehbaz Sharif said that the top court’s decision has saved the country and maintained its independence.

“The court definitely fulfilled the people’s expectations,” Mr. Sharif said.

In an apparent effort to plot his next move, Mr. Khan convened a meeting of his cabinet and top political committee in parliament on Friday, and plans to address the nation Friday evening, according to Fawad Chaudhry, the information minister.

Mr. Khan, 69, came to power on a nationalist platform and pledges to tackle corruption. His popularity has taken a hit in recent months as inflation has surged. His relationship with key military leaders also soured after he refused to back the appointment of a new chief of the country’s intelligence agency last year.

Last month, a coalition of opposition parties called for a no-confidence motion and secured the votes needed to win. But minutes before the vote was to take place on Sunday, Mr. Khan’s allies in the National Assembly blocked it and announced that he planned to dissolve the body, a move he later confirmed in a televised speech. He also called for early elections.

Hours later, Mr. Khan and his allies justified his moves by asserting that the opposition was conspiring with the United States government to oust him. American officials have denied involvement in the campaign to remove Mr. Khan.

In recent days, Mr. Khan has tried to use such accusations to whip up support among his core base and draw people into the streets — offering a glimpse of the approach he will most likely use to attract public support ahead of the general elections.

On Monday night, thousands gathered in Islamabad at a political rally for Mr. Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party. Men and women draped the party flag around their shoulders or hoisted it in the air while party leaders rallied the crowd.

Standing atop a platform above the crowd, the defense minister, Pervez Khattak, shouted, “The youth will go to every street of the country to convey the message that they will oust traitors, and Imran Khan has promised that the country will not be a slave!”

The crowd erupted in applause. Below him, a group of women began chanting: “Traitors! Traitors! Traitors!”

If the no-confidence vote proceeds as expected and Mr. Khan is voted out, then many expect Mr. Sharif, the younger brother of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and a former chief minister of Punjab Province, to become interim prime minister.

The country’s election commission, an independent federal body responsible for organizing and conducting elections to the national Parliament, announced on Thursday that general elections could be held in October at the earliest.

It is unclear how Mr. Khan would fare in elections without the full backing of the country’s military, which was widely seen as having undermined the 2018 elections to pave the way for his victory. Mr. Khan has denied that accusation, as has the military.

The Supreme Court’s ruling on Thursday also casts doubt on his political narrative that the United States conspired to oust him from power, and it is likely to cost him public support.

“This is a more significant political blow to Imran Khan than a mere vote of no-confidence loss would have been, especially as it dents his U.S. regime change conspiracy narrative,” said Asfandyar Mir, a senior expert at the United States Institute of Peace.

Still, the fallout from Mr. Khan’s recent bid to remain in power could have long-lasting consequences.

Amid the turmoil, the Pakistani rupee sank to an all-time low on Thursday. And the current crisis has further polarized the country and could escalate into unrest ahead of the upcoming elections, analysts say.

“I’m not sure how an election campaign in which people are really charged up, and there’s a high level of intolerance, remains peaceful,” said Ijaz Khan, former chairman of the department of international relations at the University of Peshawar. “I have a real fear there will be more violence.”

Reporting was contributed by Salman Masood and Ihsanullah Tipu Mehsud from Islamabad, Austin Ramzy from Hong Kong, and Zia ur-Rehman from Paris.

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