ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Prime Minister Imran Khan dissolved Pakistan’s National Assembly and called for new elections on Sunday, blocking a no-confidence vote that had been widely expected to remove him from office and threatening to plunge the country into a constitutional crisis.
Stunned opposition lawmakers said that they would challenge the move before the country’s Supreme Court, calling it “unprecedented” and a “blatant violation” of Pakistan’s Constitution. Allies of Mr. Khan said that the court had no authority to intervene in the legislature’s business and doubled down on Mr. Khan’s accusations of a United States-backed conspiracy to oust him.
The Supreme Court scheduled a hearing for Monday.
The move to dissolve the legislature appeared to be a defiant bid by Mr. Khan to remain in power despite losing the backing of the military and facing growing opposition efforts to vote him out of office.
The maneuver also risked destabilizing the fragile democracy in Pakistan, a nuclear-armed nation that supports the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan and has struggled with instability and military coups since its founding 75 years ago.
In a televised speech on Sunday, Mr. Khan confirmed that he had ordered the legislature dissolved. He justified it by claiming, as he has repeatedly in recent days, that the move to oust him from office was part of an American conspiracy. He has offered no evidence to support his claims, and American officials have denied the allegations.
“Prepare for elections,” Mr. Khan said. “No corrupt forces will decide what the future of the country will be.”
As the assembly’s Sunday session opened, Mr. Khan’s ouster had seemed all but certain. Last week, several parties in his coalition abandoned him, giving the opposition the majority it needed to remove him from office.
But the deputy speaker, Qasim Khan Suri, an ally of Mr. Khan, rejected the motion for a no-confidence vote. He said that Mr. Khan was still the prime minister and still had the power to dissolve the assembly. Pakistan’s president later confirmed that he had carried out Mr. Khan’s instruction to do so.
The move clearly took the opposition by surprise. Its leader, Shehbaz Sharif, held quick meetings with his party leaders as they tried to figure out their next steps.
“It’s been a sad day in Pakistan history. Nascent democracy has been hit and damaged in a very, very brutal way,” said Mr. Sharif, who had been expected to become the interim prime minister if Mr. Khan had been removed from office.
Opposition lawmakers had refused to leave the National Assembly building, apparently hoping to bring pressure on the Supreme Court to act. A handful of lawmakers from Mr. Khan’s party waved their fists as they left the building, repeatedly shouting, “Imran Khan, your supporters are countless in number.”
Hours after Prime Minister Imran Khan declared the National Assembly dissolved on Sunday, preventing a no-confidence vote that seemed sure to oust him, opposition leaders challenged the move before Pakistan’s Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court said it would hear their petition
Monday. The court could declare Mr. Khan’s move unlawful and allow the vote to proceed.
Should that happen, it is far from clear what Mr. Khan would do next.
Some analysts in Pakistan speculated that he might have members of the opposition arrested, on the grounds that they were part of what he claims to be an American conspiracy to remove him from office. Mr. Khan has led a growing crackdown on dissent, and opponents have accused him of targeting opposition members under the pretext of an anticorruption campaign.
One lawmaker from Mr. Khan’s Tehreek-e-Insaf party, Kanwal Shauzab, said arresting opposition members was a “possibility” as long as it was done “in accordance with the law of the land.”
“We are not going to go after the opposition without any reason. It’s what they have done. They have to pay for their own deeds,” she added.
Such arrests could reduce the majority that had seemed poised to oust Mr. Khan. But his move Sunday seemed to risk costing him supporters of his own. One outspoken lawmaker from his party, Aamir Liaquat Husain, resigned in protest, joining dozens of members of Mr. Khan’s coalition who have defected in recent weeks.
Trying to head off such defections, the interior minister said Tehreek-e-Insaf had the support of Pakistan’s institutions in dissolving the legislature — an apparent reference to the military, whose backing is considered critical to the survival of Pakistan’s civilian governments.
Military leaders had appeared to withdraw support from Mr. Khan late last year after a dispute over its leadership. They have maintained that the military remains neutral in the current political crisis.
But a spokesman for the army denied that it had been involved in or supported Sunday’s developments. It was the first time military leaders had so openly suggested that they did not support Mr. Khan’s bid to stay in office. To some, it raised the possibility of military intervention — a familiar pattern in Pakistan’s history — should the political crisis drag on.
Opposition leaders in Pakistan reacted with outrage to Prime Minister Imran Khan’s move to dissolve Parliament, accusing him of high treason and subverting the country’s constitutional order.
Shehbaz Sharif, the leader of the opposition who was expected to become the interim prime minister if a vote of no confidence had succeeded, said Mr. Khan had violated the Constitution and called on Pakistan’s Supreme Court to intervene.
“It is nothing short of a high treason,” Mr. Sharif wrote on Twitter on Sunday, adding that Mr. Khan “has pushed the country into anarchy.”
“There will be consequences for blatant & brazen violation of the Constitution,” he continued.
It is nothing short of a high treason. IK has pushed the country into anarchy. Niazi & his cohort will not be allowed to go scot-free. There will be consequences for blatant & brazen violation of the Constitution. Hope SC will play it’s role to uphold the Constitution.
— Shehbaz Sharif (@CMShehbaz) April 3, 2022
Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the chairman of the opposition Pakistan Peoples Party, also said on Sunday that Mr. Khan had violated the Constitution and vowed that the opposition would not leave Parliament.
“We call on ALL institutions to protect, uphold, defend & implement the constitution of Pakistan,” Mr. Bhutto Zardari wrote on Twitter.
“They all must be tried under article 6,” Ms. Sharif tweeted, citing a section of the country’s Constitution that says anyone who tries to suspend or subvert the Constitution “shall be guilty of high treason.”
A spokesperson for the State Department said on Sunday that American officials were closely monitoring the situation in Pakistan.
Mr. Khan had previously accused the United States of planning to oust his government by backing the opposition’s vote of no confidence, an allegation that American officials have denied.
“When it comes to those allegations, there is no truth to them,” Ned Price, a State Department spokesman, said on Thursday.
Wang Wenbin, a spokesman for China’s Foreign Ministry, had also made a plea for unity among Pakistan’s political parties on Thursday as Mr. Khan was facing the no-confidence vote.
“China always follows the principle of noninterference in other countries’ internal affairs,” Mr. Wang said in a news conference, adding that “China sincerely hopes that all parties in Pakistan can maintain solidarity and jointly uphold development and stability.”
In an interview on the eve of the vote that had been widely expected to remove Prime Minister Imran Khan from office, Mr. Khan said that he would not accept the result, dismissing it as part of an American conspiracy against him.
“How can I respect the result when the whole process is discredited?” Mr. Khan said in the Saturday interview, with journalists from The New York Times and three other international media outlets.
The comments were a preview to his actions on Sunday, when he surprised the country by dissolving Parliament and calling for new elections. Opposition leaders took the decision to the Supreme Court, which has scheduled a hearing for Monday.
Mr. Khan, a former cricket star who became prime minister in 2018, is at the center of a political crisis that has consumed Pakistan for weeks. He appeared to lose support from the country’s powerful military last year, and a coalition of opposition parties moved to vote him out of office last month.
Last week, the tide appeared to turn against him, after several parties in Mr. Khan’s governing coalition split away — giving the opposition the simple majority needed in the 342-member National Assembly to remove him from office, and prompting calls for him to resign. But he appeared to be scrambling for any way to delay the no-confidence vote and remain in office.
In the Saturday interview, Mr. Khan claimed that the no-confidence vote was part of a plot by the United States to orchestrate a “regime change” in Pakistan — doubling down on an allegation he has pushed in recent days as his political support has slipped away.
Mr. Khan has not offered lawmakers or the news media evidence to support his claims of a conspiracy, and American officials have denied the allegations. Under his tenure, Pakistan has drifted further from the United States and forged closer ties with Russia and China.
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Pakistan, a nuclear-armed nation that is home to the world’s second-largest Muslim population, has for decades been a reluctant — if important — American partner in the campaign against terrorism.
But the country drifted away from the United States under Prime Minister Imran Khan, particularly after the American withdrawal from Afghanistan, where Pakistan was long accused of nurturing the Taliban and is a supporter of the Taliban regime that took over last year. Pakistan has also embraced a strategic partnership with China and closer ties with Russia.
For two decades after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Pakistan was ostensibly a U.S. partner in the war against Al Qaeda and the Taliban after the United States demanded that Pakistan choose sides. In exchange, Pakistan’s military won tens of billions of dollars in American aid.
But from the start, the relationship between the two countries was rife with divided interests, with Pakistan playing a double game: accepting American aid, while often backing the very militants that the United States was fighting.
The Pakistani spy agency provided planning assistance and training expertise to the Taliban throughout the Afghan war, American officials have said, and offered a haven to the Haqqani network, a militant organization responsible for some of the deadliest attacks against American troops in Afghanistan. After the Taliban seized power, Pakistani protégés in the Haqqani network took on key positions in the Afghan government.
Pakistan’s goal in Afghanistan was to create a sphere of influence to block its archnemesis, India, which, according to Pakistan, supports separatist groups operating from havens in Afghanistan to stir unrest in Pakistan.
During the Afghan war, the United States tolerated Pakistan’s duplicitous game because, given the choice, American officials preferred fighting a chaotic war in Afghanistan to falling out with a nuclear-armed Pakistan. Pakistan’s ports and airfields offered critical entry points and supply lines for American military equipment needed in Afghanistan.
But the U.S. relationship with Pakistan cooled after Navy SEALs killed Osama bin Laden in 2011 at a safe house located near a Pakistani military academy.
China, a longtime patron of Pakistan, has invested heavily in Pakistani infrastructure. China is also counting on Pakistan to serve as its facilitator in Afghanistan, home to millions of dollars’ worth of rare earth minerals that have piqued China’s interests, analysts say. Mr. Khan, in trying to establish closer ties with Moscow, also visited President Vladimir V. Putin in Russia hours before the invasion of Ukraine. Mr. Khan intended to push for a multibillion-dollar gas pipeline to be built by Pakistani and Russian companies, according to news reports in Pakistan.
If Mr. Khan is ousted, many experts on the region say that Pakistan could grow closer to the United States and the West. Over the past three years, Pakistan’s military, which has historically determined the country’s foreign policy and security priorities, has often disagreed with Mr. Khan’s views on distancing from the United States, analysts say. Those differences contributed to Mr. Khan’s relationship with the military souring in the latter part of his tenure.
The day before the no-confidence vote was planned to take place, the chief of the Pakistani Army, Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, voiced a desire to deepen ties with both China and the United States, and condoned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Prime Minister Imran Khan has made anti-Americanism a staple of his political identity, and he now claims that Washington is behind the effort to remove him from power. It’s only the latest turn in the turbulent relationship that Pakistan and the United States have had for years.
After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Pakistan — then led by President Pervez Musharraf, an army general — agreed to work with the United States as it pursued Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations. For several years, Pakistan’s spy agency, the Inter-Service Intelligence Directorate, cooperated with the C.I.A., arresting a number of top Qaeda and Taliban leaders and handing them over.
But by 2006, the relationship was deteriorating. In Afghanistan, which neighbors Pakistan, the Taliban had regrouped after being driven from power by the United States-led invasion, and it was coming back in force, taking a toll on American as well as Afghan troops. American officials accused Pakistan’s powerful military of letting Taliban leaders maintain safe havens across the border, on Pakistani soil.
The low point in the relationship came in 2011, when American Special Forces flew into Pakistan and killed Osama bin Laden, the top Qaeda leader, at a compound in the northern town of Abbottabad, where he had been living. Pakistan insisted it had been unaware of Bin Laden’s presence there, near the military’s main training academy.
American drone strikes in Pakistan, targeting militants but often killing bystanders, also created tension between Washington and Islamabad. The strikes began in 2004 and continued for years, peaking in 2010. Publicly, Pakistan condemned them, though some officials quietly acknowledged their effectiveness against militant groups. But the deaths of innocent people stoked anger in Pakistan, which was capitalized on by anti-American politicians like Mr. Khan.
After the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan last year, Mr. Khan, as prime minister, ruled out letting the United States establish a military base in Pakistan. His government also said American intelligence and counterterrorism agencies would not be allowed to operate within Pakistan’s borders.
But Pakistan’s military, which has pulled its support for Mr. Khan, has made it clear that it is willing to work with the United States. Last month, Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, the head of the army, said Pakistan shared “a long and excellent strategic relationship with the U.S.”
Imran Khan was elected as Pakistan’s prime minister in 2018 when he ran as a nationalist promising to fight corruption, revive the country’s struggling economy and maintain an independent foreign policy that distanced Pakistan from the United States.
Born to an affluent family in Lahore and educated at Oxford University, Mr. Khan, 69, first rose to international prominence in the late 1970s on the cricket pitch and became a regular in London’s fashionable crowd. In 1995, he married a British heiress, Jemima Goldsmith.
A year later, Mr. Khan tried to parlay his popularity from cricket — he had led Pakistan in 1992 to its only World Cup triumph — into a political career, establishing his own party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, or the Movement for Justice. As a politician, he painted a picture of himself as a reformer offering an alternative to Pakistan’s entrenched political dynasties.
For over a decade, Mr. Khan struggled to make political inroads and was mocked for his political ambitions. But by 2011, he began to gather political momentum, drawing hundreds of thousands of Pakistanis to his rallies. Many were energized by his populist, anticorruption and anti-American message.
By then, the former international playboy had embraced a pious form of Islam and sought to transform his personal image. In 2018, Mr. Khan got married for a third time, to his spiritual adviser, Bushra Bibi. (His marriage to Ms. Goldsmith had ended in divorce, and he was briefly married in 2015 to a broadcast journalist, Reham Khan.)
After winning the backing of military leaders, Mr. Khan became prime minister in 2018. Many of his rivals accused the military of manipulating the election in his favor — an accusation Mr. Khan and the military have both denied. He ushered in a new foreign policy, moving away from the United States and closer to Russia and China.
Mr. Khan’s relatively stable tenure began to unwind late last year, as dissatisfaction with his handling of the economy came to a head and a dispute with the military over its leadership appeared to cost him its support.
Since Pakistan’s independence in 1947, the military has controlled the main levers of power in the country and has dominated foreign policy and security priorities. Pakistan has experienced four military coups, with at least as many unsuccessful attempts, and spent more than three decades under military rule.
But even under civilian governments, the country’s generals have wielded enormous power and set the agenda for Pakistan’s foreign policy and tolerance of extremist groups like the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan. The pattern of instability that has plagued Pakistan’s politics has often come down to the relationship between the governing party — specifically the prime minister — and the military.
When Imran Khan was elected as prime minister in 2018, the victory was largely attributed to the military’s support for his candidacy. Throughout his campaign, opponents accused military leaders of carrying out a soft coup by censoring major news outlets, persecuting peaceful political movements and sidelining candidates who were out of the military’s favor. Mr. Khan and military leaders have denied those accusations.
For most of his tenure, Mr. Khan enjoyed the backing of Pakistan’s powerful spy chief, Lt. Gen. Faiz Hamid. Opponents accused the general of silencing Mr. Khan’s critics through intimidation and repression. In November, military leaders removed General Hamid from his position over Mr. Khan’s protests and appointed a new spy chief, who allowed opposition political parties to operate free of threats, paving the way for them to mount the no-confidence move against Mr. Khan.
In the ensuing political crisis, the military has officially maintained a newfound position of neutrality — a break from the past, when the military was accused of meddling in politics. Facing the near certain prospect of being removed from office, Mr. Khan has criticized the military’s neutral position. During one recent political rally, he said that “only an animal is neutral,” stressing that people have to take sides when it is a matter of good and evil.
On Saturday, Mr. Khan backtracked, saying in an interview with journalists from The New York Times and three other international media outlets that he respected the army’s decision to remain neutral.
But there was also a change in tack from the military. Speaking at a security conference in Islamabad on Saturday, the army chief, Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, said that Pakistan hoped to expand and deepen its ties with other countries, including the United States — a sharp rebuke to Mr. Khan’s foreign policy agenda distancing Pakistan from the United States.
Unlike Mr. Khan, who has not strongly condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine, General Bajwa referred to the invasion as “unfortunate” and said that “despite legitimate security concerns of Russia, its aggression against a smaller country cannot be condoned.”
A spokesman for the army also denied that it had been involved in or supported Sunday’s developments, the first time military leaders had so openly suggested that they did not support Mr. Khan’s bid to stay in office.
Since Pakistan became an independent country in 1947, not one of its prime ministers has completed a full term in office.
Pakistan’s first prime minister, Liaquat Ali Khan, was assassinated in 1951. But most of his successors’ stints in power ended less violently. Many were driven out after being accused of corruption; others fell out with the country’s powerful military, as has Imran Khan, the current prime minister.
Prime Minister Muhammad Khan Junejo, for example, was ousted by the military dictator Gen. Mohammad Zia ul-Haq in the late 1980s, after being accused of incompetence. Benazir Bhutto, who served twice as prime minister in the 1990s, was dismissed each time over corruption allegations. Syed Yusuf Raza Gilani, who was elected prime minister in 2008, was removed from office by the Supreme Court over contempt of court charges.
Nawaz Sharif, who has served as prime minister three times, fell out with the military in all of his terms. His second government was toppled in a bloodless coup in 1999 by Pervez Musharraf, then the chief general of the army. Mr. Sharif’s third term in office from 2014-17 was cut short after disqualification by the Supreme Court.
In Pakistan’s history, a no-confidence vote against the prime minister has never succeeded.