Pakistan’s ex-PM Imran Khan eases demand for early voting amid crackdown on party

ISLAMABAD — Pakistan’s former prime minister Imran Khan eased his year-long demand for early elections on Wednesday, saying he would form a committee to negotiate with the government to end the country’s lingering political turmoil.

The offer, if accepted by Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif’s government, could help ease political tensions amid stalled talks between the International Monetary Fund and cash-strapped Pakistan, which is currently trying to avoid bankruptcy.

“If they tell the committee that they have a solution and the country can be better governed without me, or (if) they tell the committee that the October elections will benefit Pakistan, then I will step down,” Khan said on his party’s YouTube channel.

The 70-year-old former cricket star-turned-Islamist politician’s rare outburst on Wednesday came amid a crackdown on supporters of Khan, who the Sharif government has accused of attacking public property and military installations in the country. Although not a member of parliament, Khan leads a broad opposition movement against the government.

Khan was ousted from office in a confidence vote last year by an alliance of opposition parties led by Sharif and has since been calling new elections. He claimed, without providing evidence, that Sharif, the US and the Pakistani military had conspired to remove him from office – claims he denies. Khan later backtracked, saying only the military and Sharif were behind his ouster.

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Earlier this month, thousands of supporters of Khan’s party staged violent protests after Khan was arrested by National Audit Office officials and dragged out of a court in the capital, Islamabad.

In three days of violence, Khan’s supporters responded by attacking army headquarters in the garrison city of Rawalpindi and burning down the residence of one of the army’s top regional commanders in the eastern city of Lahore.

This sparked nationwide condemnation, leading to the resignation of several senior leaders of Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party.

In recent days, Khan has dialed back his rhetoric.

In a video message sent to his supporters on Wednesday, the former prime minister said he is ready to form a committee that will negotiate with the government. He said he would back down on his demand for a snap vote if his committee was convinced that a parliamentary vote scheduled for October was “good for Pakistan”.

According to the constitution, the next vote is due in October, when the parliament expires.

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Khan’s largely unexpected offer to withdraw from demanding early elections came a day after he appeared before anti-corruption authorities in Islamabad in connection with a graft case. No details were available about Khan’s appearance before the National Accounts Office, which will question him for more than four hours.

Khan and his wife, Bushra Bibi, are accused of accepting a gift of property to build a private university in exchange for providing benefits to a real estate tycoon.

Khan denies the allegation, saying he and his wife were not involved in any wrongdoing.

Khan’s bid to retire comes amid a crackdown on those linked to the recent violence that has left at least 10 people dead. This comes after several of Khan’s deputies, including former Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry and Human Rights Minister Shireen Mazari, resigned over the recent violence.

Asad Umar, the secretary general of Khan’s party, also resigned in a major blow on Wednesday amid fears that Khan’s party will be crushed by political opponents ahead of the next election.

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Since his ouster, Khan has been embroiled in more than 100 legal cases and has been granted immunity from arrest in several cases as of June 8.

Protracted political turmoil has exacerbated an economic crisis in cash-strapped Pakistan, which is desperate for the release of a key $1.1 billion tranche of a $6 billion 2019 bailout for Islamabad.

Pakistan experienced one of its worst weekly inflation rates – 50% – this month after Sharif’s government cut subsidies and raised taxes to meet the terms of a bailout to ensure the release of the tranche. It has been pending since December.

In a televised address to a rally in Islamabad on Wednesday, Sharif condemned recent attacks on military installations by Khan’s supporters, saying a “red line” had been crossed when Khan’s supporters staged violent protests.

He said that criminal proceedings would be initiated against all those associated with attacks on military installations and public property.