A charismatic politician and former jet-setting cricket star, Khan, 69, swept to power in 2018, inspiring voters with his anti-establishment rhetoric and a vision of building a “new Pakistan” — an Islamic welfare state based on opportunity, justice and independence for the nuclear power and impoverished Muslim-majority nation of 220 million.
But in recent months, he had struggled to control rampant inflation, foreign debt and other economic woes. While many of his promised reforms and civic projects sputtered, he maintained a loyal following, especially among young Pakistanis. But he also made political enemies, rejected advice from military leaders and lost allies to the opposition, which slowly gathered enough support to challenge his fitness for office.
As his luster dimmed, Khan launched an aggressive campaign to restore it. He held massive rallies and gave speeches with stirring nationalist and religious themes, even couching his effort as a fight between good and evil. And when it appeared that his opponents had marshaled enough votes to remove him, Khan dissolved the legislature April 3 and arranged to have the vote abruptly canceled, on the grounds that it was based on an illegal foreign conspiracy.
Stunned and enraged, opposition leaders rushed to the Supreme Court, demanding that it overturn Khan’s actions on the grounds that they were unconstitutional and illegal. For the next four days, Pakistan’s democratic system hung in the balance, while the court held day-long hearings and the nation waited anxiously for it to act.
On Thursday, the justices ruled unanimously that Khan’s maneuvers had been illegal and that the vote must be held. Khan, in a subdued address to the nation Friday, said he would accept the decision. While tacitly acknowledging that he would probably lose, Khan called on his supporters to come out in “peaceful protest” afterward and vowed to seek election again.
But just a day later, the embattled premier decided to resist the drive to oust him, defying the court’s ruling and setting up an institutional confrontation.
On Saturday morning, when Parliament went into session, opposition leader Shehbaz Sharif urged that the vote be held as soon as possible. “Today, Parliament will be writing history and defeat an elected prime minister in a constitutional manner,” he declared.
Instead, pro-government members spent much of the day giving long, rambling speeches in an effort to delay the vote. Repeated recesses were called, and then a longer evening pause to break the Ramadan fast. Meanwhile, Khan spoke at a charity event and held a closed-door Cabinet meeting.
He then emerged to tell several local journalists that he would “not accept a new government that came from the outside,” and said he planned to show the “foreign conspiracy” document to Supreme Court justices and other officials.
Until that moment, Khan had refused to make the document public, but had described it as a private diplomatic message from the then-Pakistani ambassador in Washington, saying that a U.S. official had threatened his government during a meeting in early March. A spokesman for the U.S. State Department has said there is “no truth” to Khan’s accusation.
As tension mounted in the darkened capital, Pakistani news stations reported that the Supreme Court would open at midnight to deal with the crisis. The federal investigative agency issued a high alert at all airports and said no official could leave the country without permission. Then the national assembly speaker announced that he was resigning to support Khan after viewing the secret document.
This cleared the way for another official to preside over the vote. The count started just before midnight, and by 1:30 a.m., the embattled premier had been removed from office.
“It’s a new day for our country,” exulted Sharif, the leader of the legislative opposition, who is expected to become interim prime minister until elections are held in the fall. “Now we will make Pakistan again a country grounded in the law and the Constitution.”
Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, leader of the opposition Pakistan People’s Party, stood amid a sea of cheering and clapping legislators, a wide grin on his face. “My message to Pakistani youth is never give up your dreams. Anything is possible,” he said. “Welcome back to the old Pakistan.”
Khan’s ouster, which ended his term in office 18 months early, was a stunning blow to an ambitious politician who suddenly joined the beleaguered ranks of Pakistan’s previous premiers — all of whom had been forced out before their terms ended. But in one way, many Pakistani observers said it marked a positive step for Pakistan’s weak democracy.
For the first time since the nation’s founding in 1947, it was neither a military coup nor another form of extralegal interference that cut short a prime minister’s tenure. It was a legally held vote, endorsed by the judiciary, in a careful legalistic ruling that was widely applauded.
Pakistan’s daily Dawn newspaper, in its lead editorial Friday, said the court’s action had defeated an “egregious assault on the country’s democratic order” at a moment when “matters seemed be hurtling towards chaos.” It said Khan’s stubborn refusal to step down had “rendered Pakistan’s entire democracy a farce,” and it expressed hope that the court’s verdict would “pull the country back from the precipice.”
In his televised address Friday night, Khan bitterly denounced Pakistan’s political system as an “evil” process where votes are “bought and sold,” calling it “worse than a banana republic.” He also reiterated the explosive charges that his opponents had conspired with the U.S. government, which he has often criticized despite a long history of shared security concerns between the two countries, that began with the Cold War and was revived after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
After taking office, Khan shifted Pakistan’s allegiance to China and caused consternation in Washington with some of his policies and public gestures. He made a blanket refusal to host U.S. bases, welcomed last year’s Taliban takeover in Afghanistan and traveled to Moscow to meet with President Vladimir Putin on the eve of the invasion of Ukraine.
“I will never accept the imported government, and I will take to the streets,” Khan vowed in his speech, describing himself as a fighter who has struggled for the rights and independence of Pakistan. “I came in with the people, and I will go out with the people.”