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Pakistan plunges into political crisis after its parliament was dissolved

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Pakistan was plunged into a political crisis today after its parliament was dissolved. Prime Minister Imran Khan called for disbanding the legislative body in order to avoid a vote of no confidence in his leadership, which would have likely seen him removed from power. Now he's calling for elections for a new parliament. On the line with us is NPR's Diaa Hadid. She's based in the capital, Islamabad. Hello.

DIAA HADID, BYLINE: Hi.

RASCOE: So, what happened today?

HADID: Well, it was a remarkable day of political theater in the parliament. The information minister accused the opposition of being traitors because they were carrying out an American plan to overthrow Imran Khan's government. And then Khan's allies rushed to the front of the chamber. And they were shouting slogans like friends of America are traitors to their country. Have a listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: And so as that was happening, we got word that the prime minister had asked the president to dissolve parliament. And that just - everyone went a little bit wild. The opposition was furious. And have a listen here to Marriyum Aurangzeb. She's a spokeswoman for a chief opposition party.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARRIYUM AURANGZEB: This is the violation, blatant violation of the constitution of the country. And this cannot happen like that in the daylight. We will not allow this.

HADID: And she says, you know, they have the numbers to throw Khan out. And now they've taken this to the Supreme Court, which might hear their appeal tomorrow.

RASCOE: Why is Prime Minister Khan blaming America for his troubles?

HADID: Right. So first of all, he claims that he has a letter proving an American conspiracy. But local media cites a diplomatic cable that reports a senior state department official had some strong words about Khan. And analysts say this is about Khan trying to build up this narrative of being a pious Muslim and, like, a Pakistani maverick, a nationalist. So - and that will carry him through to the next elections.

RASCOE: What are the stakes here?

HADID: Well, they're pretty big. First, there's concerns about violence in Pakistan, which is already deeply politically polarized. And it also risks worsening relations with - between, excuse me - Pakistan and the United States as Khan's allies whip up these anti-American sentiments. And this constitutional political crisis in Pakistan - which, you know, let's remember here, is a nuclear armed nation of 220 million people - is coming just as they're meant to negotiate the next tranche of an IMF bailout. Inflation here is high, just like it is around the world, because of the pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine. And as food prices keep going up, political instability is that much likelier.

RASCOE: The military has long been accused of meddling in Pakistani politics. Were they involved in this?

HADID: Right. So the military was widely seen as helping bring Khan to power in 2018, even though he does have a very strong and loyal base. But his political trouble seems to have begun after analysts said military stopped backing his rule. He seems to have infuriated them by straining these already poor relations with Washington. He openly celebrated the Taliban's takeover of Afghanistan, and he visited President Vladimir Putin as Russian forces invaded the Ukraine. And that gave an opening for the opposition to try to claim power.

RASCOE: In the 30 seconds we have left, why is the opposition mad? They wanted Imran Khan out, and now they've got the chance to do that - right? - with elections.

HADID: Right. So some say they wanted to humiliate Khan by having him thrown out of power. But they also do ask if this government can illegally dissolve parliament, will they really accept the results of the next election if it's not in their favor? But yeah, sure, there are Pakistanis who would definitely appreciate returning to the polls. And as they do, we'll be watching who the military might back this time round.

RASCOE: NPR's Diaa Hadid in Islamabad, thank you for your reporting.

HADID: You're welcome, Ayesha. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.