Imran Khan was voted out as Pakistan’s prime minister early on Sunday, ending weeks of political uncertainty that had fuelled a devaluation of the rupee, dragged down the country’s stock market and forced the central bank to raise interest rates.
Following a tense session of the lower house of parliament that began on Saturday morning, a coalition of Pakistan’s opposition parties gained the support of 174 members in the 342-seat house to pass a vote of no confidence against Khan.
“We will bring stability to Pakistan. There will be no revenge against anyone,” said Shehbaz Sharif, leader of the opposition after the vote.
Sharif, the scion of a leading industrial family and brother of former three-term prime minister Nawaz Sharif, was named the opposition’s candidate to become the next prime minister in a vote that is expected to appoint him Pakistan’s new leader as soon as Sunday.
Khan, a popular international cricket star, became prime minister in 2018 on the back of promises to reform Pakistan. While in office he transformed his playboy image from the 1970s and 1980s and became an admirer of conservative Islam, welcoming the victory of the Taliban in Afghanistan last year.
But his ouster more than a year ahead of elections expected by next summer comes at a time of mounting economic challenges for the country. The nuclear-armed nation is in the midst of a $6bn loan programme from the IMF that has involved unpopular measures including increases in utilities prices.
Meanwhile, fast-rising inflation, driven in part by the fallout from escalating commodity prices, has prompted warnings of unrest.
“Hubris, erratic governance, poor economic management and intolerance of opposition were among key factors responsible for his downfall,” said Maleeha Lodhi, a former ambassador to the US and the UN who is now a political commentator.
Before Khan’s departure there were reports that Pakistan’s powerful army had withdrawn its support of the prime minister. The opposition claimed after his election in 2018 that the army had played a decisive role in securing his victory, including by influencing leading politicians to back him. Senior army officers denied the claims.
Pakistan has been ruled by the army for just under half of its 75 years of existence since it gained independence from the British Raj.
“The transition ahead is full of challenges especially managing a debt ridden and inflation-afflicted economy,” Lodhi said.
“The road ahead is characterised by uncertainty. But the good news is that the constitution won out and democracy strengthened.”
Business leaders warned that the new government will face tough challenges such as popular anger at rising fuel and electricity prices.
Last month, under mounting pressure from his political opponents, Khan announced a subsidy on fuel and electricity tariffs in a bid to win popular support. A senior finance ministry official in Islamabad told the FT that the IMF had raised objections to the subsidies.
“This is not a good time for any new leadership to take charge of Pakistan,” said the head of a leading company in Karachi, Pakistan’s southern port city.
Separately, a senior opposition leader told the FT that Sharif may announce parliamentary elections before the end of this year “to avoid going for elections [in 2023] when economic trends could make his government more unpopular”.
In the past few weeks, Khan has repeatedly claimed that he was the victim of a US plot to remove him following his trip to Moscow to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the day when Russia began its invasion of Ukraine. US officials have denied the claim.
Politicians close to Khan said that he planned to raise the issue at rallies in the coming days to drum up support.
“Imran Khan wants Pakistanis to remember him for standing up to America, even at the cost of eventually losing power,” said one.