Seeking to capitalize on arch-rivals’ woes, Pakistan opposition leader Imran Khan demands early polls

“We are scared about the (emerging) situation in the country”

Irshad Salim — Pakistan’s former cricket captain turned politician and a formidable opposition leader who finally triumphed in his long campaign to remove Nawaz Sharif as the country’s prime minister has called upon the government to hold early elections and secure fresh mandate “to strengthen democracy” while urging the country’d Supreme Court to reconstitute the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) for ensuring free and fair polls.

Speaking to the media at his Bani Gala residence in capital Islamabad on Sunday, Khan stressed the need to contain the deepening uncertainty in public minds: “The country is virtually in disarray. Our fast failing internal and external security policies coupled with worst-performing economy have created doubts in the minds of ordinary Pakistanis. There is a need to restore public confidence.”

Terming fresh mandate vital for the continuation of democracy, he said: “The prime minister (Abbasi) has no authority. He himself claims that Nawaz Sharif is his prime minister,” Khan maintained.

Khan has been fighting Mr Sharif politically for years, but last year he took his battle to the supreme court following revelations in the leaked Panama Papers about offshore companies with links to the Sharif family.

This July, the country’s apex court ruled Mr Sharif was unfit for office both as an assembly member and prime minister. And with just months until the next general election, Mr Khan now has his best opportunity of overturning Pakistan’s two established parties (PML-N and PPP) and becoming prime minister. The bigger challenge for him now is ensuring he is voted in as the man to replace him at next year’s election.

Criticizing the ruling party PML-N on several fronts, the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) Chairperson stated that the government should call for fresh mandate as the country’s foreign affairs were being affected.

“This is necessary for a democracy,” the PTI leader said. “In order to save and strengthen the democracy, you [PM Abbasi] should move towards elections. Seek the people’s mandate.”

“It is all over for the Sharifs…”“So many things have come out that everyone now can see. The Sharifs can no longer get away with what they have got away with for the past 30 years,” he said in an interview to the Financial Times ahead of what promises to be a grueling election campaign.

Others, however, say Mr Sharif, who has served as prime minister on three different occasions since 1990, should never be written off. As evidence, they point to the victory just over a week ago by Kulsoom Nawaz, Mr Sharif’s wife, in the Lahore seat he was forced to vacate.

“It is not over yet for Nawaz Sharif,” said Ahmed Rashid, author of several books about Pakistan and the region to FT. “He still has a political base of very long standing in Lahore.”

Mr Khan insists that the reduced majority won by Mrs Nawaz is a sign of support dissipating from the Sharifs’ Pakistan Muslim League — Nawaz party.

“The PLM-N saw their vote share decline by 30 per cent,” he says. “This does not augur well for them in a general election.”

Khan is also buoyed by the dismal performance of PPP (Pakistan Peoples Party) in Lahore bye-election– “an indicator that the liberal-moderate party of the Bhutto’s may be a thing of the past in central Punjab,” said one senior PTI leader. Therefore, sensing time is right in his view, Khan has upped the ante and called for early elections. However, some observers are split on his strategy of throwing brickbats at Sharif who continues to pull strings of his party in power both in the center and in Punjab– his stronghold.

Despite the inroads made by Khan’s PTI party at the recent Lahore by election, many believe also that he remains a fatally flawed candidate.

“He has lost a lot of ground since last year, when he was at his peak,” said Ahmed Rashid to FT. “The problem is he has been more interested in going after Nawaz Sharif than explaining the direction in which he wants to take the country, and that has led to a lot of disillusionment among his younger voters.”

He now has his guns trained at the prime minister and his 59-member cabinet.

Khan has pointed out the statement made by Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif ─ and later endorsed by PM Abbasi and reiterated by Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal ─ that Pak­istan needs to “put its house in order” was “endangering” the country.

Khan questioned why the government had not ‘brought its house in order’ four years ago under the National Action Plan– a super national civil-military initiative which was launched to rout terrorism and extremism from the country.

Khan said the PM was making “irresponsible statements” at a time when the country was facing immense pressure from India and America in the aftermath of President Trump’s South Asian policy announcement, during which he lambasted Pakistan for offering safe havens to “agents of chaos”.

Khan said that Washington’s South Asian policy had humiliated Pakistan on the international platform and “there was nobody to speak for the country.”

He added that Trump’s statement placed the blame for America’s failed policy in Afghanistan on Pakistan.

“Where was our foreign minister when this policy was being developed?” Khan asked, adding that at that time the ruling party was pre-occupied with the verdict of the Panama Papers case. He said that the ruling party was embarrassing Pakistan abroad.

“Keeping in view the country’s internal and external challenges, I demand that the prime minister, on an urgent basis, hold elections and seek a fresh mandate,” Khan stressed.

“The new prime minister should win fresh mandate if he wanted to rule the country.”

Khan said the PML-N leaders were maligning Pakistan and its institutions and hell bent upon giving Pakistan Army a bad name.

“We are scared about the (emerging) situation in the country,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Islamabad High Court (IHC) on Wednesday suspended bailable arrest warrants issued against Khan by the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) for failing to appear before it in the contempt of court case against him.

The ECP had issued the contempt notice to Khan on January 24 over his “scandalous remarks” about the commission.

The PTI had petitioned the IHC seeking an end to the contempt of court hearing against Khan.

Khan and his party has another lawsuit being heard against them in the Supreme Court in which the petitioner– said to be one of the party’s founding members, having demanded that the party disclose ‘foreign fundings received’– the apex court has asked the defense to produce all records if any.

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