Top Pakistan court hears arguments in major political crisis

ISLAMABAD (AP) — Pakistan’s top court began hearing arguments Monday on whether Prime Minister Imran Khan and his allies had the legal right to dissolve parliament and set the stage for early elections.

The opposition is challenging the latest moves by Khan, a former cricket start turned conservative Islamist leader who came to power in 2018, contending they are a ploy by Khan to stay in power.

The Supreme Court started hearing arguments on Monday both from Khan’s legal team and his allies, and also the opposition, but then adjourned the session until noon Tuesday.

There was no immediate explanation for the adjournment and it was also unclear when a ruling would come. Muslim-majority Pakistan is observing the holy month of Ramadan, when the faithful fast from dawn to dusk

On Sunday, Khan’s ally and Pakistan’s deputy parliament speaker, Qasim Suri, dissolved the assembly to sidestep a no-confidence vote that Khan appeared certain to lose. The opposition claims the deputy speaker had no constitutional authority to throw out the no-confidence vote.

The developments marked the latest in an escalating dispute between Khan and the opposition, which has been backed by defectors from the prime minister’s own party, Tehreek-e-Insaf or Justice Party, and a former coalition partner, the Muttahida Quami Movement, which had joined opposition ranks. The opposition claims it had the numbers to oust Khan in parliament. It has also accused him of economic mismanagement.

The current political conundrum is in many ways unchartered territory, even for Pakistan, where successive governments have been overthrown by a powerful military and others ousted before their term ended.

The most significant decision before the Supreme Court is whether Suri, the deputy speaker, had the constitutional authority to throw out the no-confidence vote, according to constitutional lawyer Ali Zafar.

Zafar told The Associated Press that the court also has to decide whether it even has the authority to rule on this matter. Khan’s party insists actions of a parliament speaker are privileged and cannot be challenged in court.

If the court rules the deputy speaker was out of line, the parliament will reconvene and hold the no-confidence vote on Khan, legal experts say. If the court upholds the latest actions, Pakistan is heading into early elections.

The opposition says it has the 172 votes in the 342-seat assembly to oust Khan. After Suri on Sunday threw out the no-confidence motion, information minister and another Khan ally, Fawad Chaudhry, accused the opposition of plotting “regime change” with the backing of the United States.

Pakistan’s powerful military — which has directly ruled the country for more than half of its 75-year history — has remained silent through much of the political infighting.

However, Army Chief Qamar Javed Bajwa on Sunday distanced the military from allegations of a U.S.-backed conspiracy, saying Pakistan wants good relations with both China and the U.S., Pakistan’s largest trading partner.

Khan, an outspoken critic of Washington’s war on terror and Pakistan’s partnership in that war, claims the U.S. wants him gone because of his foreign policy choices and for refusing to distance Pakistan from China and Russia.

“We support the peaceful upholding of constitutional democratic principles. That is the case in Pakistan. It is the case around the world,” said U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price about Pakistan and allegations of U.S. attempts to oust Khan. “We do not support one political party over another; we support the broader principles, the principles of rule of law, of equal justice under the law.”

However, Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia Program at the Wilson Center, sees the latest political wrangling as just another “part of a recurring pattern in Pakistan of governments undermining the democratic process to maintain their hold on power. ”

It underscores a deeply polarized society, Kugelman added. While Khan’s supporters may think dissolving parliament was a “stroke of genius” to avoid a no confidence vote, his critics “think he has acted recklessly and essentially pulled off a legal coup, plunging the country into a constitutional crisis.”

Separately, Pakistani President Arif Alvi, another Khan ally, was ignoring Monday’s deliberations before the Supreme Court and was forging ahead with preparations for an interim government that would see Pakistan through elections. Under the constitution, Khan would remain prime minister until the appointment of a caretaker premier, Alvi said in a tweet.

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Associated Press writers Munir Ahmed in Islamabad and Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report. Follow Kathy Gannon on Twitter at www:twitter.com/Kathygannon

Copyright © 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

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