Defiant Pakistani PM calls for street rallies in his support

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ISLAMABAD (AP) – A defiant Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan on Friday said he was engaged in a fight to protect the country’s sovereignty and called his supporters into the streets to defy opponents who are determined to to drop him off.

Khan delivered an impassioned televised address to the nation on the eve of a no-confidence vote in parliament, a day after Pakistan’s Supreme Court blocked his attempt to stay in power and ruled his bid to dissolve parliament and call early elections was illegal .

Thursday’s court decision set the stage for a no-confidence vote, with opposition lawmakers saying they had the 172 votes in the 342-seat assembly needed to unseat Khan after several of his ruling party members and a small but key coalition partner defected was .

In his speech, Khan called on Pakistanis – particularly the country’s young people who have been the backbone of his support since the former cricket star-turned-conservative Islamist politician came to power in 2018 – to rally nationwide on Sunday night.

“You all have to come out on Sunday after evening prayers to protest, to protest peacefully… I say again that one should never indulge in violence,” he said. “It was supposed to be a peaceful protest.”

He vowed not to accept the results of Saturday’s no-confidence vote – an indication he was aware he was likely to lose the vote.

“You must come out to protect your own future. It is you who must protect your democracy, your sovereignty, your independence… it is your duty,” he said.

Pakistan’s latest political crisis erupted last Sunday when Khan sidestepped the opposition’s initial no-confidence motion – a motion that had been in preparation for weeks – and instead accused his opponents of colluding with the United States to unseat him.

Qasim Suri, Khan’s ally and deputy speaker of the parliament, rejected the no-confidence vote over collusion, while his information minister, Fawad Chaudhry, called the opposition “disloyal” and accused it of collaborating with a foreign power.

Khan dissolved parliament and called snap elections, but the opposition took their case to the Supreme Court.

After four days of deliberations and hearing arguments from both the opposition and Khan’s lawyers, the five-member bench unanimously ordered Parliament restored and the vote of no confidence held on Saturday.

For his part, Khan said he wanted the Supreme Court to investigate communications between a senior US diplomat, whose name he did not name, and Pakistani diplomats – communications he claimed were evidence of collusion.

Khan claimed America wanted him because of his foreign policy decisions in favor of Russia and China and a Feb. 24 visit to Moscow where he held talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin as Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine. He has also said the US does not like his harsh criticism of Washington’s war on terror.

The US State Department has denied any involvement in Pakistan’s internal politics. Deputy State Department spokeswoman Jalina Porter told reporters Friday that “there is absolutely no truth to these claims.”

“Of course we continue to follow these developments and support Pakistan’s constitutional process, but again these claims are absolutely not true,” she said.

Khan’s political opposition ranges across the political spectrum, from the left to radical religious parties. The largest of the opposition parties – the Pakistan People’s Party and the Pakistan Muslim League – have been hit by allegations of widespread corruption.

Pakistan’s Muslim League leader and former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has been convicted of corruption after being named in the so-called Panama Papers – a collection of leaked classified financial documents showing how some of the world’s wealthiest hide their money and into which a global law firm involved in Panama. He was barred from office by the Supreme Court of Pakistan.

If the opposition wins the no-confidence vote, it will be up to Parliament to elect a new head of government – that could be Sharif’s brother Shahbaz Sharif. If lawmakers are unsuccessful, snap elections would be called.

“I will not accept imposed government,” Khan said on Friday.

Khan’s options are limited and should he see a large turnout in support of his support, he could try to keep the momentum of the street protests to pressure Parliament. However, since his supporters are overwhelmingly young people, who make up the majority in Pakistan, he also risks an outbreak of violence.

“Khan has tapped into a strong vein of anti-American sentiment in Pakistan that is not likely to be dissipated any time soon,” Elizabeth Threlkeld, Pakistan researcher at the US-based The Stimson Center, told The Associated Press.

Pakistan’s military, which has consistently intervened during many previous unrests that have engulfed a democratically elected government, has remained silent in the latest crisis. The army has held power and ruled for more than half of Pakistan’s 75-year history.

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Associated Press writers Munir Ahmed in Islamabad and Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.

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