Pakistan’s Supreme Court is looking into the legality of Prime Minister Imran Khan’s unexpected move over the weekend to block a parliamentary vote against him and then call for a snap general election.
The deputy speaker of parliament, a member of Khan’s party, threw out the no-confidence motion that Khan had widely been expected to lose, ruling that it was part of a foreign conspiracy and unconstitutional.
The court’s five-member bench, headed by the country’s chief justice, has adjourned proceedings until Tuesday.
Legal experts say that how the court rules on Khan’s move could have major implications for democracy in Pakistan, where no prime minister has yet fulfilled a full term and where the military has ruled for nearly half of the country’s history.
Here are some possible outcomes of the crisis:
Court overturns Khan’s actions
A court decision against the move to block the vote of no-confidence could overturn subsequent decisions made by the government, including the dissolution of the assembly and the calling of elections within 90 days.
In this case, the lower house of parliament would be restored and the vote against Khan could go ahead.
If Khan lost that vote, which he would be expected to, the opposition could nominate its own prime minister and hold power until August 2023, by which date fresh elections have to be held.
The opposition has also said it wants early elections, but only after delivering a political defeat to Khan and passing legislation it says is required to ensure the next polls are free and fair. They allege the 2018 polls, which Khan won, were not. He denies any wrongdoing.
A court ruling against Khan also opens the door for legal action against the 69-year-old and members of his party, as opponents say he is guilty of subverting the constitution.
In an extreme scenario, that could entail Khan’s disqualification from the next elections, as happened to two previous prime ministers in 2012 and 2017.
Court legitimises Khan’s actions
If the court ruled that Khan’s moves were legal, it would mean elections would go ahead within 90 days.
That would be a major political win for Khan and provide him with momentum going into the polls.
Ahmad Bilal Mehboob of the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development And Transparency (PILDAT) told Al Jazeera on Tuesday that the National Assembly speaker’s ruling on the vote of no-confidence was not only unconstitutional but even a subversion of the constitution.
“Since everything was seemingly pre-planned, the constitutional violations (by government) were attempts to subvert the constitution,” he said.
“Speaker could only had held voting and it was the right to the members to either accept or reject no confidence motion.”
Mehboob said a court ruling that endorses the dissolution of parliament could create problems, particularly in holding fresh elections.
Khan’s actions deemed illegal, but polls happen
The court could rule that the steps taken by Khan were illegal, but that since the process of holding new elections was already under way, those plans should continue as announced to ensure there was as little political damage as possible.
That would not preclude possible legal action against Khan and his aides.
Court does not interfere
One question being debated in the media and among politicians is whether the Supreme Court can interfere in parliamentary proceedings at all.
There is a clause in the constitution that says that it cannot, but courts have interpreted this differently in the past – particularly when it relates to constitutional matters.
The court could keep itself out of this matter, which would mean all the steps taken by Khan were legitimised and Pakistan would have general elections within 90 days.
Proceedings drag on
If the Supreme Court does not rule quickly, the power vacuum could begin to affect key policy areas, including talks with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for much-needed funds to support the cash-strapped economy.
At the moment, Pakistan has no government after Khan dissolved the cabinet. Between elections, there is usually a caretaker setup decided by consensus between the government and the opposition.
In the absence of such a consensus, the process would be passed to parliamentary committees and eventually the election commission, and that could take days.
There is a risk to markets in such a scenario. On Monday, Pakistan’s stock exchange fell as did Pakistan’s dollar bonds traded in the international market.
Pakistan has seen three direct military interventions citing economic and political uncertainty – in 1958, 1977 and 1999.
Pakistan’s military has long been a powerful player in politics, and it has ruled directly for 33 of Pakistan’s 75 years since independence.
However, top generals have denied any involvement in the current political crisis and said that the armed forces were there to protect democracy.