Tens of thousands of Pakistanis have held a protest rally in the capital, Islamabad, amid discontent over rising inflation, with the opposition setting a 48-hour deadline for embattled Prime Minister Imran Khan to step down in response to public anger.
Although security forces had blocked the main entry points to Islamabad with shipping containers, supporters of major opposition parties from across Pakistan flocked to the city and took part in the rally on Friday.
According to police estimates, up to 35,000 people participated in the “Azadi (Freedom) March,” led by Maulana Fazlur Rehman, the leader of the religious Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI-F) party.
“We have to take resignation within two days. If the resignation does not come, we will have to take a decision, and you (crowd) will take that decision,” said Rehman, Khan’s long-time rival.
Addressing his supporters, the influential cleric said he did not want “collision” with the military. “We want to see the institutions being impartial,” he added.
The opposition says Khan’s government is “illegitimate.”
“After one year in power, 220 millions Pakistanis are screaming but the time has arrived for Imran Khan to scream,” Shehbaz Sharif, leader of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz party, told demonstrators.
A government spokeswoman denounced the protest as a threat to democracy.
“These steps … are against the rules of Pakistan and tantamount to destroying democratic norms and the constitution,” the spokeswoman, Firdous Ashiq Awan, tweeted.
Habib ur Rehman, one of the participant in the protest, said people were struggling to make ends meet, blaming Khan for the country’s economic woes.
“My family voted for him thinking he’s a new person and looked sincere,” he said. “But he’s failed us.”
As protesters gathered in the capital, defiant Khan censured the JUI-F’s chief and pledged to prosecute him for alleged graft.
“Those who make money in the name of Islam have been exposed,” Khan told thousands of cheering supporters in the northern city of Gilgit, adding, “I have promised to Allah I will send all those to jail who looted the country.”
Cricket star-turned-politician Khan won the election on promises of fighting corruption and pledged to pull 100 million people out of poverty, but the government is still struggling with a faltering economy battered with rising inflation and slow economic growth.