Pakistan's highest court is looking to rule on the constitutional validity of the controversial parliamentary ruling that canceled a no-confidence vote against Prime Minister Imran Khan who swiftly dissolved parliament and called for elections.
The chief justice of the Supreme Court told lawyers for the opposition and Khan's government to conclude their arguments by Wednesday after two days of hearings so that the five-member panel of judges can hand down a verdict. He didn't say when the ruling would be announced.
Delays in the court's ruling could lead to more instability in Pakistan, especially at a time when the country is in talks with the International Monetary Fund for an installment of bailout funds. Reflecting the political strife of the past month, the rupee is trading at a record low against the US dollar and the benchmark KSE-100 Index closed little changed on Tuesday after losing 2.8% a day earlier.
Khan, a former cricket star, had lost his parliamentary majority last week and was set to face a no-confidence vote by the opposition on Sunday. But the deputy speaker of the National Assembly, a member of Khan's party, rejected the motion in a sudden turn of events, saying it was driven by alleged foreign interference and went against the spirit of the constitution.
Within minutes, Khan dissolved the lower house with the approval of the president and told the country to prepare for national elections in 90 days. The supreme court decided to review the decision that was also challenged by the opposition.
The court on Tuesday heard arguments from lawyers representing opposition groups including the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, led by former premier Nawaz Sharif, and Pakistan Peoples Party, which is co-chaired by ex-president Asif Ali Zardari and his son Bilawal Bhutto Zardari.
If the Supreme Court upholds the deputy speaker's ruling and finds no illegality, there will be further erosion of the constitution, said Marva Khan, an assistant professor at the law school of the Lahore University of Management Sciences. It is also possible that the justices do not set aside the speaker's ruling for "pragmatic reasons," seeing that elections are inevitable, she added.
Khan had earlier floated the idea of calling an election but couldn't do so unless the opposition withdrew the no-confidence motion. He was initially resistant to the persistent calls to hold elections early.
If the court strikes down the deputy speaker's ruling, the National Assembly will be restored and the no-confidence motion carried out. The opposition is likely to still have the numbers to oust the Khan and appoint Shehbaz Sharif as prime minister to lead a coalition government. They too, will call for elections after a few months.
Either way, the court ruling will add to more political upheaval in Pakistan, which has been ruled by the military for nearly half of its history.
Pakistan's army has denied its involvement in the current crisis. It was widely thought in Pakistan that Khan has lost the backing of the military, that has helped him survive previous attempts by the opposition to oust him.
"There's a clear split between Khan and General Bajwa, and while there may be elements of the military sympathetic to Khan, ultimately they will follow General Bajwa's orders," said Akhil Bery, a director at South Asia Initiatives of Asia Society Policy Institute. "So even if the court orders fresh elections, it's unlikely that the army will tip the scales towards Khan as it did before."
Before the vote, Khan tried to win back support from the ground and the military by alleging a conspiracy led by the US to unseat him. Washington has denied these allegations and Pakistan's military said the country wants to expand its relations with the US, which it says is the biggest export market.
Khan's relationship with the US and Europe had nosedived. He's pivoted closer to China and Russia and recently visited Moscow, meeting with President Vladimir Putin hours before the invasion of Ukraine. Russia on Tuesday said events in Pakistan were a sign that Washington was making "disobedient" Khan pay the price for going to Moscow.
"We hope that the Pakistani voters will be informed about these circumstances when they conme to the elections," Russia's foreign office said in a statement.
Disclaimer: This article first appeared on Bloomberg, and is published by special syndication arrangement