RAWALPINDI, Pakistan - Former Pakistan prime minister Imran Khan pushed for immediate elections in an address to thousands of supporters at his first public appearance on Saturday since being shot earlier in November in an assassination attempt he blamed on his successor.
“If the country’s economic security becomes a risk, that will directly affect our national security,” he said, maintaining that Pakistan needed fresh elections.
He said his party would win elections even if they were held after nine months, and said that the country stood at a crossroads.
Saturday’s rally is the climax of a so-called long march by Mr Khan’s party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), to press the government to call a snap election before Parliament’s term expires in October 2023.
The rally took place on a vast open ground between the capital, Islamabad, and neighbouring Rawalpindi – the garrison city that is home to the headquarters of the country’s powerful military.
The authorities had thrown a ring of steel around Islamabad to prevent Mr Khan’s supporters from marching on government buildings, with thousands of security personnel deployed and roads blocked by shipping containers.
“My life is in danger, and despite being injured, I am going to Rawalpindi for the nation,” PTI quoted Mr Khan as saying in a morning tweet. “My nation will come to Rawalpindi for me.”
On Saturday, a video was circulating of aides posing with a now-removed blue cast that Mr Khan wore on his right leg after the shooting.
The shooting on Nov 3 was the latest twist in months of political turmoil that began in April, when Mr Khan was ousted by a vote of no confidence in Parliament.
Khan-led protests in May spiralled into 24 hours of chaos, with the capital blockaded and running clashes across Pakistan between police and protesters.
Police said any attempt by PTI supporters to enter Islamabad this time would be firmly dealt with.
Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah – who Mr Khan says was involved in the assassination plot – issued a “red alert” on Friday, warning of security threats to the rally.
“PTI still has the time (to cancel),” he said, listing Pakistan’s Taliban and Al-Qaeda among the extremist groups that could harm Mr Khan.
The government says the assassination attempt was the work of a lone wolf now in custody, with police leaking a “confession” video of the junk-shop owner saying he acted because Mr Khan was against Islam.
But Mr Khan, a former international cricket star with a playboy reputation before he married, said he has long warned that the government would blame a religious fanatic for any attempt to kill him.
Saturday’s rally took place two days after the government named a former spymaster as the next military chief.
General Syed Asim Munir’s appointment ended months of speculation over a position long considered the real power in the nuclear-armed Islamic nation of 220 million people.
Gen Munir served as chief of the Inter-Services Intelligence agency under Mr Khan, but his stint ended after just eight months, following a reported falling out.
Pakistan’s military, the world’s sixth-largest, is hugely influential in the country and has staged at least three coups since independence in 1947, ruling for more than three decades.
Since being ousted, Mr Khan has staged a series of mass rallies across the country, drawing huge crowds.
On Saturday, convoys of PTI supporters came in from around Pakistan, with buses, trucks and cars bearing party flags. AFP