Pakistan's populist former prime minister, Imran Khan, says his scheduled march on the capital, Islamabad, starting Friday could trigger a "soft revolution" in the country through the ballot box and warned of chaos if authorities try to block the protest.
Khan made the remarks Tuesday during a virtual debate organized by Britain's Oxford Union. He said the long-promised march will start in the eastern city of Lahore and draw people from across Pakistan to converge on the capital and press the government into holding early elections.
"This march will show where the people of Pakistan stand. And I feel that it will be one of the biggest protest movements in Pakistan's history," said the 70-year-old leader of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) opposition party. "It will be peaceful within our constitutional rights."
Khan's PTI runs several regional governments, including the most populous Punjab province, of which Lahore is the capital, and the northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
The cricket-star-turned politician accused Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif's government of unleashing a crackdown on political dissent and media freedom since taking office. He said it has led to a "mixture of depression and hatred" in Pakistan.
"There are two ways of changing. You can have a soft revolution through ballot box or it the other way, which causes destruction in a society," Khan argued. "But I just believe that we are now on the brink. Either we are going to change peacefully or I'm afraid it will lead to chaos in our country."
Khan was removed from power in April through a parliamentary no-confidence vote and Sharif, the then-leader of the opposition, replaced him as the prime minister of a new ruling coalition of around a dozen political parties.
The deposed Pakistani leader has asserted, without evidence, that his government's removal was orchestrated by the United States in collusion with Sharif and Pakistan's powerful military, charges that Washington and Islamabad reject.
Critics often point to the Pakistani military as the arbiter of power in the nuclear-armed and world's fifth most populous country.
"The Pakistani army has never been neutral, in the sense that it has never stayed out of politics," said Michael Kugelman, a South Asian affairs expert at Washington's Wilson Center. "From its legacy of coups to its more recent role of serving as a back room political powerbroker and policy influencer, the army has always played an outsize role in Pakistani politics."
Surging popularity amid inflation, floods
Sharif has repeatedly dismissed Khan's demand for immediate elections as unconstitutional, saying they will be held in October or November of next year, in line with the constitution.
Khan held an anti-government march on Islamabad in May but police and paramilitary forces broke it up with heavy tear gas shelling. Several protesters were killed and scores of others injured.
Khan's popularity has surged since then and tens of thousands of his supporters have turned out at PTI-organized rallies to call for snap polls, helping his party win recent by-elections for national and provincial legislatures.
The political tensions and looming elections have fueled economic uncertainty in cash-strapped Pakistan as Sharif's government struggles to contain rising inflation and tackles a balance of payments crisis while foreign exchange reserves dwindle.
The economic challenges have worsened since mid-June, when catastrophic flooding hit the South Asian nation, killing more than 1,700 people and inflicting infrastructure losses estimated to be more than $30 billion.
Khan has also targeted the military leadership in his rally speeches for allegedly facilitating Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and its major coalition partner, the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), to return to power.
The two family-run parties have ruled the country successively for years and long accused each other of widespread corruption and mismanagement of the economy until they joined hands this year and removed Khan from office.
"We're replaced by a government where 60 percent of the cabinet is on bail on corruption cases and the two families that had been calling each other crooked and putting each other in jail and corruption cases unite against me are brought into power," Khan said at Tuesday's event.
He asserted that while in power he was trying to enforce the law in Pakistan by bringing the two former ruling families to justice for laundering billions of dollars "to build places overseas."
Khan went on to allege that the federal anti-corruption autonomous body was being "controlled by the establishment," an allusion to the military.
"For some reason the establishment's views on corruption were completely different to mine. They did not take that seriously. I kept telling them that no country can prosper if the ruling elite is siphoning off money outside the country."
PM, FM denounce Khan as liar
Last week, the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) disqualified Khan from his seat in the National Assembly, the lower house of parliament, accusing him of concealing his assets. The ruling alleged that the former prime minister had made a "false statement and incorrect declaration" about his assets before the ECP. Khan and his party denounced the decision as politically motivated and a high court is looking into the complaint.
Sharif rejects Khan's allegation of corruption, calling him a "fraudster" and the "biggest liar in Pakistan's history" at a recent news conference in Islamabad.
"Instead of challenging the law and bringing stick-waving riotous groups, you need to bow your head before the law. No one is above the law," Sharif said in a statement last week referring to Khan's proposed protest march.
Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, who heads the PPP, has also criticized Khan for leveling unfounded allegations against political rivals.
"[The] election commission of Pakistan has found Imran Khan guilty of corrupt practices. He now stands disqualified. He who would spread lies about alleged corruption of his political opponents has been caught red handed," he said on Twitter shortly after the election panel announced its ruling against Khan.
The Wilson Center's Kugelman believes Pakistan's leaders would be making a mistake if they try to further sideline Khan.
"When you sideline a populist who enjoys mass popularity, you ultimately end up strengthening them. It's as simple as that," Kugelman said.