Former Prime Minister Imran Khan, leader of the opposition Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party, addressed tens of thousands of supporters in Lahore on March 26, 2023. The rally was the first since Khan was shot and wounded last November while leading an anti-government rally. In his speech, Khan accused the powerful military of meddling in politics, claiming that it has orchestrated his ouster and a crackdown on his party. He also renewed his demand for early national elections, stating that they would lead to political stability in Pakistan.

Government attempts to block access to the rally

Despite government attempts to block access to the rally by placing shipping containers at crucial entry and exit routes of Lahore, the turnout was massive. The provincial government cited terrorism threats as the reason for beefing up security and blocking certain routes in Lahore, the capital of Punjab province, Pakistan’s most populous.

Khan’s allegations against the military and the government

Khan accused the recently retired Pakistani military chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, of collaborating with his successor, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, and the United States to orchestrate his ouster. He also accused the military of trying to get him disqualified from politics, fearing he would sweep national elections scheduled for later this year. Government officials say the number of legal cases against Khan is close to 40, while Khan maintains that the government has filed more than 100 cases against him, including corruption, terrorism, blasphemy, and sedition charges, to keep him from leading his party’s election campaign.

Khan’s demand for early national elections

Khan reiterated his demand for early national elections, stating that they would lead to political stability in Pakistan. He insisted that a government with public support can only introduce much-needed economic reforms and win the confidence of international lenders. Inflation has risen to more than 46%, foreign exchange reserves have sunk to record lows, and the country of about 220 million people is on the brink of default on foreign debt payments as the International Monetary Fund has yet to revive a critical bailout program for Pakistan over a lack of economic reforms.

Reactions from government officials

Pakistani Defense Minister Khawaja Asif, speaking to reporters on March 25, 2023, rejected Khan’s allegations as “scandalous” and said the PTI chief was making such claims to whip up his supporters. Authorities have confirmed arresting hundreds of Khan supporters for their alleged role in violent clashes with security forces in recent days. According to sources at media outlets, dozens of Pakistani television channels did not cover the opposition rally under government pressure. PTI’s social media platforms, including YouTube, aired Khan’s speech.