LAHORE, Pakistan -- Tens of thousands of Pakistani opposition supporters gathered in central city of Lahore, defying coronavirus restrictions, to renew calls on Prime Minister Imran Khan to step down to pave the way for fresh, "transparent" elections.
Opposition leaders on December 13 also reiterated criticism of what they describe as the military's meddling in politics and warned of "anarchy" in the country "if [political] matters aren't handled with care."
The rally marked the sixth such gathering organized by the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), a recently formed alliance of 11 opposition parties. The alliance includes the parties of former three-time Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and slain former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.
Addressing the crowd, PDM chief Maulana Fazlur Rahman accused the military of supporting the "illegal government" and said the establishment mustn't try to stop a planned opposition march in the capital, Islamabad, in early 2021.
Opposition leaders allege that Khan was brought to power by the army through a rigged vote in July 2018 and accuse the military establishment of interference in civilian affairs. Both the government and the military deny the allegations.
The government has also been under pressure over its handling of an economy plagued by rising inflation and energy shortages. The opposition also accuses Khan of curbing civil liberties and restricting free press.
Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, an opposition leader and the son of Benazir Bhutto, ruled out the possibility of any dialogue with Khan or the military unless fresh elections were announced.
"The time to have a dialogue is over. There will be a march now," he told the rally.
Maryam Nawaz, the daughter and political heir of Nawaz Sharif, said Khan "will have to go" because he was making the lives of ordinary Pakistanis miserable.
She also accused the former head of the powerful intelligence agency, the ISI, of helping Khan -- then an opposition leader -- organize rallies and launch a protest movement against the government of Sharif in 2013.
Sharif himself addressed the rally via video link from London, where he has been based since he left on medical release in November 2019.
Sharif called on opposition supporters to continue rallies until Khan's government is sent packing.
Sharif was convicted of corruption charges in 2018. Khan has said the protest campaign is aimed at blackmailing him into dropping corruption cases against its leaders.
The next general elections in Pakistan are scheduled for 2023.