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Pakistan's Khan rallies supporters ahead of parliament vote

FILE - Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan arrives for the opening ceremony of the 2022 Winter Olympics, Feb. 4, 2022, in Beijing. Khan turned to gra...

FILE - Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan arrives for the opening ceremony of the 2022 Winter Olympics, Feb. 4, 2022, in Beijing. Khan turned to gra...

ISLAMABAD (AP) — Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan turned to grassroot supporters Monday, lobbying the poor and promising better hospital care as he faces a no-confidence motion in parliament.

The challenge may be the biggest yet for the former cricket star turned Islamist leader since he came to power in 2018. The opposition has demanded Khan step down over his alleged failure to improve the country’s economy.

Pakistan’s key opposition parties launched a formal no-confidence vote for Khan earlier this month. Asad Qaiser, speaker of the National Assembly, convened a special session for Friday to deliberate whether Khan still has majority support in the house. Under the constitution, the parliament has three days to deliberate after which the lawmakers will vote, perhaps as early as Monday.

Khan has remained defiant, claiming he still enjoys the backing of the majority of lawmakers in the 342-seat house.

On Monday, Khan spoke to a gathering at a hospital in Islamabad, lauding his government's efforts to provide free health care for the poor.

“Since I joined politics, it was my dream that poor people should have free facilities and free medical care,” Khan said, adding that his government has succeeded in providing that to nearly every poor Pakistani citizen.

He also defended his government's performance, saying all economic indicators show improvement in Pakistan’s economy.

But recent mutinies from within Khan's own Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party could easily tip the scales against him. As many as 13 lawmakers from his party have indicated they could vote against him. After the 2018 election, Khan secured 176 votes in parliament to become prime minister.

At a televised rally Sunday, he urged the dissenters to come back, saying he would forgive them, while also claiming they had been bribed by the opposition — a charge the turncoats deny.

Also, several lawmakers from parties allied with Khan opened talks last week with the opposition Pakistan Democratic Movement on a possible new realignment in parliament, should Khan be ousted.

The votes of the dissenters from Khan's ranks have also become an issue. Pakistan’s President Arif Alvi on Monday asked the Supreme Court for guidance on whether their votes should be counted and considered valid.

Some law experts say those votes will be counted — even if the Election Commission later disqualifies them on complaints from Khan’s party.

Imtiaz Gul, a senior Pakistani analyst, said it seems the opposition's no-confidence motion has garnered substantive support.

“This is a massive challenge to Imran Khan in a country of low morals and where the selfish forces of status quo are out to upstage him by hook or crook," Gul told The Associated Press.

The opposition, which needs a simple majority of 172 votes to oust Khan, insists it has enough support.

“Imran Khan has already lost the majority in the National Assembly,” said Shahbaz Sharif, the opposition leader in parliament, adding that the no-confidence motion was a mere formality.

The political turmoil comes as Pakistan is preparing to host foreign ministers from the 57-member Organization of Islamic Cooperation in Islamabad on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Pakistan's information minister, Fawad Chaudhry, slammed the opposition, saying their real intention was to disrupt the conference, for which the dates were announced months ago.

If Khan is ousted, the parliament will elect a new prime minister who will decide, along with lawmakers, if early elections should be held. Pakistan's next elections are due in 2023.

Before the 2018 elections, there was a perception that Khan had the backing of Pakistan's powerful military — a charge the military denied at the time. The military recently reiterated that it has no role in the country's politics.

Pakistan’s military has ruled the country for more than half of its 75-year history since independence from Britain.