A billboard with the picture of Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan is displayed outside the National Assembly, in Islamabad, Pakistan, Sunday, April 3, 2022. (AP /Anjum Naveed)
ISLAMABAD: Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan looked likely to be booted out of office later Sunday as parliament gathered to vote on a no-confidence motion following weeks of political turmoil.
No premier of Pakistan has ever completed a full term, and Khan faces the biggest challenge to his rule since being elected in 2018, with opponents accusing him of economic mismanagement and bungling foreign policy.
Sunday's newspapers splashed foreboding headlines for Khan's political fate, with the country's biggest English-language daily The News calling it a "Final countdown".
"A new chapter in the history of Pakistani democracy may be written today," wrote the influential Dawn newspaper.
Authorities have installed a ring of steel around the National Assembly in the capital, using shipping containers to block roads after Khan on Saturday called for supporters to take to the streets.
His Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party (PTI) effectively lost its majority in the 342-member assembly last week when a coalition partner said its seven lawmakers would vote with the opposition.
More than a dozen PTI lawmakers have also indicated they will cross the floor.
The opposition needs 172 votes for the motion to succeed, but in the past parties have resorted to physically preventing lawmakers from taking part by blocking access to the national assembly, leading to cat-and-mouse chases and even accusations of kidnapping.
Khan has accused the opposition of conspiring with "foreign powers" to remove him because he won't take the West's side on global issues against Russia and China.
Earlier this week he accused the United States of meddling in Pakistan's affairs.
Local media had reported that Khan had received a briefing letter from Islamabad's ambassador to Washington recording a senior US official saying they felt relations would be better if Khan left office.
In Washington last week, State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters there was "no truth" to the allegations.
The opposition is headed by the Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N) and the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) -- two usually feuding dynastic groups that dominated national politics for decades until Khan forged a coalition against them.
If Khan goes, the PML-N's Shehbaz Sharif is tipped to become the next prime minister.
Sharif is the younger brother of three-time prime minister Nawaz Sharif, who was ousted in 2017 and jailed on corruption charges, but is currently in Britain after being released from prison for medical treatment.
On Saturday the government moved to have Sharif sent back to jail to await trial on money-laundering charges that have been pending since 2020, asking a Lahore court to revoke his bail.
A decision is expected Monday.
Khan was elected after promising to sweep away decades of entrenched corruption and cronyism, but has struggled to maintain support with inflation skyrocketing, a feeble rupee and crippling debt.
Some analysts say Khan has also lost the crucial support of the military -- claims both sides deny -- and Pakistan's army is key to political power.
There have been four military coups -- and at least as many unsuccessful ones -- since independence in 1947, and the country has spent more than three decades under army rule.
Debate on the no-confidence motion was due to start Thursday, but the deputy speaker -- from Khan's party -- suspended proceedings when legislators declined to first address other items on the agenda.
Khan, a former international cricket star who in 1992 captained Pakistan to their only World Cup win, hinted Saturday he still had a card to play.
"I have a plan for tomorrow, you should not be worried about it. I will show them and will defeat them in the assembly."