Islamabad, Pakistan – Imran Khan, the former prime minister of Pakistan, has attacked the government over its handling of the economy and has once again called for swift elections in the country.
“The problem is this government will push Pakistan to the brink. What if the economy tanks and we default? It will be beyond all of us,” Khan said on Thursday during an interaction with Al Jazeera and other foreign media outlets in capital Islamabad.
Pakistan’s already struggling economy was further racked by unprecedented floods this summer, with the government estimating the total loss at $30bn.
However, Pakistan was battling dwindling foreign exchange reserves and a nose-diving currency even before the floods that killed more than 1,700 people and destroyed homes, roads and rail networks.
According to a World Bank report, Pakistan’s poverty rate is likely to rise between 2.5 and 4 percentage points due to the floods. Nearly 20 percent of its 220 million people are already below the poverty line.
On Wednesday, the Asian Development Bank announced a $2.5bn package for the flood-hit country, days after the World Bank pledged $2bn in aid. In late August, the International Monetary Fund announced a $1.17bn bailout package.
Khan said the economy will be a challenge for the next government, which he was confident of forming.
“I don’t know at what stage will we inherit the economy. But I expect a very grave situation, far worse than the state of economy we took over back in 2018,” the cricketing icon-turned-politician said.
“Twenty percent of our textile industries are closed due to unemployment. Almost 50 percent of our car industry and mobile phone industry are closed. Textile industry is going on strike, the farmers have gone on strike,” he added.
“The sooner you have political stability, the quicker you will have economic stability. Time is of the essence for Pakistan,” he said.
Khan was removed from power in April after he lost a no-confidence vote in parliament. He was replaced by an unelected government of coalition partners led by Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif.
Since his removal, an agitated Khan has been holding public rallies across the country, demanding early elections which are otherwise due in October 2023.
In his briefing on Thursday, he announced plans for another “long march” to Islamabad by the members and supporters of his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party to press for immediate polls.
A similar protest march in May saw a vicious crackdown by the government, with Khan alleging the killing of at least five of his supporters in clashes with police. When asked about the failure of the march, Khan said he was surprised by the government’s harsh response.
“I was completely taken by surprise,” he said. “When I was the prime minister, we allowed opposition three marches and we never stopped them. There was no harassment or police interference. But when we went for the march, the crackdown we faced was unprecedented.”
The 70-year-old politician declined to give a date for the next protest march.
“This march is just one of the many things we intend to do. This march is not the be-all and end-all. We have various other things planned as well,” he said.
Khan also took a conciliatory stance towards the powerful military, which has ruled Pakistan for half of its history as an independent nation and is considered by many as the real power broker in the country.
“My negotiations are with anyone who will give Pakistan free and fair elections. A political party does not sort matters through the barrel of a gun. They always have the doors open for negotiations,” he said.
When asked about the appointment of the new army chief after incumbent General Qamar Javed Bajwa retires next month, Khan said a replacement should be picked based on merit. He added that the “corrupt” Sharif and his allies should not be allowed to play a role in the selection.
“How can two criminals make the most sensitive appointment? Only an elected government should appoint the next army chief,” he said.
On Pakistan’s tenuous relations with the United States, Khan said he is not “anti-America” but only concerned about the interest of the Pakistani citizens.
“We should be partners in peace, not in conflict,” Khan said. “The last time we became partners in conflict, more than 80,000 Pakistanis died, we suffered billions of dollars of loss.”
Khan had blamed a conspiracy led by the US for his removal from office, an allegation denied by both Washington and Islamabad.
“International relationships are all about sticking to your foreign policy which benefits your own people. Your foreign policy should reflect two things, the ideology of why the country came to be, and secondly, the interest of your people,” he said.