Pakistan's former premier Imran Khan said Saturday his party was quitting the country's regional and national assemblies, as he made his first public appearance since being wounded in a gun attack earlier this month.
Khan, a former cricket star turned politician, was ousted in a no-confidence vote in Parliament in April. He is now in the opposition and has been demanding early elections, claiming his ouster was illegal and orchestrated by Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif, with the U.S. government’s help. Sharif and Washington have dismissed the allegations and the current government says the next polls will be held as scheduled in 2023.
Khan launched a protest march late last month from the eastern city of Lahore toward Islamabad as part of his campaign for early polls, but stepped down from personally leading the convoy after he was wounded by a gunman who opened fire at his vehicle. One of Khan’s supporters was killed and 13 were wounded in the attack. The gunman was arrested.
On Saturday night, in Rawalpindi city near Islamabad, Khan rejoined the protest march.
He told tens of thousands of his cheering supporters that his Tehreek-e-Insaf party was leaving all regional and national assemblies and getting out of this "corrupt system.”
His party resigned from the national assembly en masse in April ahead of a vote to elect a new prime minister, although most of the resignations have yet to be accepted. Khan's stronghold is in the northwest province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and leaving the Punjab assembly would hand power to his rivals.
The politician spoke for more than an hour, including references to the Sufi mystic Rumi, the fall of the Soviet Union, and the seventh-century Shiite leader Imam Hussain.
Toward the end of his speech, he did a U-turn on his demand for snap elections, saying his party would win the polls scheduled for nine months' time. He also said he would no longer march on the capital.
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“They (government) cannot deal with a march in Islamabad, they can call as many police as they want, but they cannot stop the hundreds of thousands from entering Islamabad,” said Khan. "We could have created a situation like Sri Lanka. I have decided against marching on Islamabad because I don’t want there to be anarchy in the country. I don't want to cause any harm to this country."
After months of protests over an economic crisis that has led to shortages of essentials such as food and medicine, thousands of Sri Lankans stormed the president’s residence in July, forcing then-President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to flee and later resign.
Khan said he will meet his chief ministers and parliamentary party and announce the timing of the exit.
The rally came days after the appointment of a new army chief, Asim Munir, who ran the country's spy agency during Khan's term in office but was fired without an explanation from the then-premier.
Munir replaces Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, who Khan has also accused of playing a role in his ouster. Bajwa denies the allegation.
Pakistan's Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari described Khan's Saturday night rally as a “facesaving flopshow.”
He said in a tweet: “Unable to pull revolution crowds, failed at undermining appointments of new chiefs, frustrated, resorts to resignation drama.”