ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Pakistan’s Supreme Court on Thursday overturned Prime Minister Imran Khan’s decision to dissolve parliament, paving the way for a widely expected no-confidence vote to remove him from office and handing a major victory to the leaders of the opposition, who said Mr Khan had attempted an “open coup”.
Mr Khan, the international cricketer-turned-politician, and his allies dissolved parliament on Sunday, blocking a vote of no confidence. This decision plunged the country into a constitutional crisis and greatly aggravated the political instability which has shaken Pakistan for weeks.
Recent developments have reignited fears of unrest in the nuclear-armed country of 220 million people which has seen 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 hurt his ability to rally broad support ahead of the next election. Although no prime minister in Pakistan has ever completed a full five-year term, Mr Khan would be the first to be removed from office in a vote of no confidence.
In its verdict on Thursday, the court agreed that the decision violated the Constitution and ordered the vote of no confidence to 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 decision appeared to turn the political tide of opposition parties, which were surprised when Mr Khan escaped a no-confidence vote on Sunday. In the days that followed, Mr Khan, a populist leader, had dominated the political narrative and rallied support around his allegations of an American-led plot against him.
Now it is likely that the opposition and Mr. Khan must turn their attention to new elections. It will be a referendum on Mr Khan’s tight-rope politics after a public rebuke to his leadership from the country’s courts and lawmakers, including some of his political allies.
“Imran Khan is going to lose face,” said Ayesha Siddiqa, a research associate at SOAS University of London. “It will become very clear that he has lost the confidence of Parliament, including members of his own party.”
The elections will also test whether the coalition of opposition parties – usually at loggerheads, but teaming up around the goal of the no-confidence vote – can hold together.
In a country where the military controls the main levers of power, elections are also widely seen as an opportunity for military leaders to choose and elevate new political partners.
“Pakistani politics has two parallel tracks,” said Islamabad-based political analyst Arifa Noor. “One is public support, and the other is military. One without the other doesn’t land you in the big siege.
Mr Khan, 69, came to power on a nationalist platform and pledges to fight corruption. Its popularity has taken a hit in recent months as inflation has surged. His relations with top military leaders have also soured after he refused to back the appointment of a new head of the country’s intelligence agency last year.
Last month, a coalition of opposition parties called for a motion of no confidence and won the votes needed to win. But minutes before the vote was due to take place on Sunday, Mr Khan’s allies in the National Assembly blocked him and announced he planned to disband the body, a decision he later confirmed in a televised speech. He also called for snap elections.
Hours later, Mr. Khan and his allies justified his moves by claiming that the opposition was conspiring with the United States government to oust him. US officials have denied any involvement in the campaign to remove Mr Khan.
In recent days, Mr. Khan has tried to use such accusations to drum up support from his hard core and draw people to the streets – offering a glimpse of the approach he will most likely use to drum up public support ahead of the general election.
On Monday evening, thousands gathered in Islamabad for a political rally for Mr Khan’s Pakistani Tehreek-e-Insaf party. Men and women draped the party flag around their shoulders or hoisted it into the air as party leaders rallied the crowd.
Standing on a platform above the crowd, Defense Minister Pervez Khattak shouted: “Young people will go to every street in the country to spread the message that they will drive out traitors, and Imran Khan promised that the country would not run like a slave!”
The crowd burst into applause. Below him, a group of women began chanting, “Traitors! traitors! traitors!
Ahead of the snap elections, the country’s electoral commission, an independent federal body tasked with organizing and conducting elections to the national parliament, is expected to set up an interim government. The commission announced on Thursday that a general election could be held in October at the earliest.
Kicking off the process on Monday, the Pakistani president, an ally of Mr. Khan, invited Mr. Khan and Shehbaz Sharif, the leader of the opposition in the National Assembly, to propose names for the interim prime minister of a interim government.
Mr Khan nominated Gulzar Ahmed, a recently retired chief justice who, like the prime minister, is a populist. The opposition offered no name for the office, as their position was that nothing should be done about a caretaker government until the court had given its decision on the effort to dissolve parliament.
It is unclear how Mr Khan would fare in the election without the full backing of the country’s military, which was widely seen as having undermined the 2018 election to pave the way for his victory. Mr. Khan has denied the charge, as has the army.
But the fallout from his recent bid to stay in power could have lasting consequences.
Amid the turmoil, the Pakistani rupee fell to an all-time low on Thursday. And the current crisis has further polarized the country and could escalate into unrest ahead of the next election, analysts say.
“I don’t know how an election campaign in which people are really hyped and there is a high level of intolerance, remains peaceful,” said Ijaz Khan, former chair of the international relations department at the University of Peshawar. . “I’m really afraid that there will be more violence.”
Salman Masood contributed reporting from Islamabad and Austin Ramzy from Hong Kong.