Embattled Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan on Thursday rejected opposition calls to resign and accused the United States of trying to topple his government as he faces a parliamentary no-confidence vote Sunday.
Opposition parties in the legislative National Assembly, or lower house of parliament, jointly submitted the no-trust motion earlier this month, seeking Khan’s ouster for allegedly mismanaging Pakistan’s economic and foreign policies.
The 69-year-old former cricket star said Thursday night in an address to the nation that he would not resign and would stand up to foreign intervention, rejecting the misrule charges by his opponents.
“The vote will take place on Sunday. Whatever the outcome may be, I will emerge stronger. I will not let this conspiracy succeed at any cost,” Khan said in his address.
In what appeared to be a slip of tongue, the Pakistani leader named the U.S. as the origin of a “memo” that Khan said confirmed a “foreign conspiracy” prompted by his visit to Russia on the day President Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine.
“We got a message from America — oh, not America, I mean a foreign country I can’t name,” Khan said in the live televised address.
“They say they are angry with Pakistan. … They say they will forgive Pakistan if Imran Khan loses a no-trust motion. But if the vote fails, Pakistan will have to face serious consequences,” Khan said, citing the text of the memo.
Journalists working for mainstream news channels in Pakistan have reported that the message in question was delivered to Islamabad’s outgoing ambassador to Washington on March 7, a day before the opposition moved the no-trust vote in parliament.
“They [foreigners] were aware of the no-confidence motion before it was tabled [in parliament]. It means they [the opposition] were in touch with outsiders,” Khan asserted, confirming the date on which the message was delivered to the Pakistani ambassador. He added that the alleged conspiracy was meant to punish him for pursuing an independent foreign policy for Pakistan.
Opposition leaders swiftly rejected Khan’s allegations as baseless and said they stemmed from his frustration over what they insist will be certain defeat. Washington also dismissed the charges.
“When it comes to these allegations, there is no truth to them,” State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters during a regular briefing.
“We are closely following developments in Pakistan. We respect [and] we support Pakistan’s constitutional process and the rule of law,” Price added.
Khan addressed the nation after chairing an emergency meeting of the national security committee, which comprises the top civilian and military leadership of Pakistan, to discuss the “threatening” memo.
“The committee expressed grave concern at the communication, terming the language used by the foreign official as undiplomatic,” said a post-meeting statement issued by the prime minister’s office.
The meeting concluded that the communication “amounted to blatant interference in the internal affairs of Pakistan by the country in question, which was unacceptable under any circumstances.”
The statement said that Pakistan “will issue a strong demarche to the country in question both in Islamabad and in the country’s capital through proper channels in keeping with diplomatic norms.”
In a late-night statement, the Pakistani Foreign Ministry said, “The requisite demarches have been made through diplomatic channels.” It did not name the country.
Analysts say the development is likely to strain an already fragile relationship between Pakistan and the U.S.
“The U.S.-Pakistan relationship will take a hit from events of the last few days,” said Michael Kugelman, an expert on South Asian affairs at the Washington-based Wilson Center, in a tweet. “Relations haven’t been bad of late — uncertain and unsettled — but not in crisis. The revelations, rhetoric & accusations injected into the public space over the last few days will set things back a bit.”
Khan’s political troubles
About two dozen of Khan’s ruling party lawmakers have defected, and key coalition partners also have abandoned the government and joined the opposition, leaving the prime minister without 172 votes. That is the majority he needs to survive the no-confidence motion in the 342-member legislative assembly.
Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) won the 2018 general election but fell short of receiving a majority, forcing him to form a coalition government with the help of political allies.
No Pakistani prime minister has ever completed a five-year term because of what critics cite as direct and indirect military intervention. The military has staged several coups in Pakistan, leading to long dictatorial rules.
Khan’s ouster would come more than a year before the country’s next general election. It would mark the first time that an elected chief executive would be forced from office through a no-confidence vote.
The Pakistani leader has long criticized the U.S. war on terrorism launched in neighboring Afghanistan 20 years ago to pursue the planners of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on American cities.
Khan renewed his criticism in his speech, saying Pakistan joined the U.S. war at a cost of tens of thousands of casualties and billions of dollars in economic losses but received no praise from Washington for the sacrifices.
“Has anyone said, ‘Thank you, Pakistan,’ for what we did?” Khan asked in Thursday’s address.
He has defended his visit to Putin, saying it was planned well before the invasion of Ukraine.
“Even European leaders went to Russia. But Pakistan in particular is asked, ‘Why did you go?’ as if we are their servants,” he said.
The main opposition parties leading the campaign to bring down the government are the Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N), led by self-exiled Nawaz Sharif, who has been prime minister three times, and the Pakistan Peoples Party, headed jointly by former President Asif Ali Zardari and his son, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari.
VOA’s Cindy Saine contributed to this report.