RAWALPINDI, Pakistan — Ousted prime minister Imran Khan, addressing tens of thousands of cheering followers Saturday in a rambling, grievance-filled speech outside the capital, announced that his party would withdraw from Pakistan’s national and provincial legislatures but continue fighting for new elections peacefully to avoid creating “anarchy and chaos.”
The rally in the city of Rawalpindi, 14 miles from Islamabad, the capital, was the culmination of Khan’s “long march” for “real freedom,” which featured dozens of smaller rallies nationwide. People traveled hundreds of miles to the highly secured event, camping in an adjacent city park full of tents. Most major roads nearby were blocked to traffic, but throngs of people on foot kept coming until the thick but festive crowd, cheering and waving banners, extended for more than a mile.
Some officials had warned that the rally could turn violent or that Khan might be targeted by terrorists. Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah suggested Friday that al-Qaeda could easily “find an agent” to attack the charismatic opposition leader and that some Khan supporters might bring weapons to disrupt the event. Thousands of police officers were deployed to secure the area and snipers were stationed on rooftops near the stage.
But Khan, whose speech was largely devoted to accusations against the current government, repeated his allegations that some members of the military had been part of the plot to kill him on Nov. 3, and denounced numerous alleged incidents of official intimidation, legal harassment, threats and attacks against himself, his supporters, political allies and journalists.
He also reprised his previous complaints about corruption and “plundering” by political leaders from Pakistan’s wealthy, dynastic ruling class, especially the current government of Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, who orchestrated the parliamentary vote that forced Khan from power in April. Listing his efforts to help the poor, build dams, and other projects as premier, he asked, “What was my crime?”
Yet despite the bitter tone of his remarks, and his recent vow to bring a “revolution” to Pakistan via either “bloodshed” or “the ballot,” Khan made it clear he would not pursue any illegal or violent actions against the government, but would use other tactics, including peaceful pressure by his supporters, to push for new elections. He also suggested this past week that he would be willing to wait until next fall for them to be held, as Sharif has insisted.
Khan’s party members hold more than 100 seats in the national parliament and in several provincial assemblies. In the past few months, the party has won an unexpectedly high number of seats in several areas, including Punjab province, the longtime bastion of Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-N.
These gestures followed other surprising, conciliatory signs from Khan in recent days that diminished widespread tensions surrounding the replacement of Pakistan’s army chief, which by law takes place every three years. The deadline for the new chief to be named coincided with Khan’s rally plans, and there were fears that he would try to block the selection.
Instead, Khan raised no public objection when the Sharif government on Thursday endorsed the army’s top choice for the post, Lt. Gen. Asim Munir, even though Khan had a history of bad blood with Munir. In 2018, while Khan was premier, he forced the army to abruptly remove Munir as head of the national intelligence agency so he could install a general he preferred.
In a warm-up speech at Saturday’s rally, veteran politician Sheikh Rashid, a leader of Khan’s Movement for Justice party, reinforced the point. “We welcome and congratulate the new army leadership,” he said. “This is our army. It is Pakistan’s army. It is Imran Khan’s army.”
Still, experts noted that the country remains sharply polarized and faces a deep economic crisis, and that the military, which has come under unprecedented public criticism for meddling in civilian affairs, will be expected to play a role in restoring calm and confidence under its new leadership.
“The army is facing public pushback on levels it has not seen in many years,” said Michael Kugelman, a South Asia expert at the Wilson Center in Washington. “It will need time to restore the public trust, but it will also be under immediate pressure to ease political instability and reduce tensions between the government and Khan. That’s a lot of difficult terrain to navigate.”
At the rally site late Friday and early Saturday, thousands of Khan supporters began arriving from other parts of the country. After long drives, they rested in large tents erected in the park nearby. The mood was relaxed and upbeat, as strangers united by their devotion to Khan exchanged travel stories and experiences from other rallies.
“This is my 27th rally,” said Manzour Bagron, 57, a wheat farmer from Gilgit-Baltistan, a northern mountainous region 12 hours away by road. “Mr. Khan is the only honest leader in this country and the only one who can save it. We are here to link our arms and stand behind him like a rock.”
Rana Yasir, 55, a textile mill employee from Faisalabad, an industrial city 300 miles south, described Khan as “a lion in a country of goats and sheep. Times are hard, people are struggling and our institutions are failing. But he can get us out of the quagmire, especially when he joins hands with the army. Both are essential for the country.”
Although Pakistan is a democracy with elected civilian leaders, the army remains its most powerful institution. It has always held sway over the country’s political fortunes and has seized power several times. The outgoing army chief, Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, is an outspoken proponent of keeping the armed forces neutral, and in a speech Thursday, he bluntly criticized its political meddling, calling such actions over the past 70 years “a major reason” for public mistrust.
But there is widespread skepticism here about whether such pledges of neutrality will stick. In just the past week, the army’s patriotic image has been tainted by new reports of questionable financial gains and lucrative real estate investments by senior and retired army officials.
“It is the moment of truth for the incoming army leadership,” analyst Zahid Hussain said this past week. After years of playing political kingmakers without serious pushback, he said, the army now faces a ferocious adversary in Khan, because his “populist appeal has changed the rules of the game.”