Former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan and thousands of his supporters have started a march to the capital to try to pressure the government to call snap elections.
Since being removed in April through a no-confidence vote in parliament, Khan has held rallies across Pakistan, stirring opposition against a government that is struggling to bring the economy out of the crisis that Khan’s administration left it in.
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Khan plans to lead the motorised caravan slowly northwards up the Grand Trunk Road to Islamabad, drawing more support along the way before entering the capital next week.
By the time he gets there, Khan said he expects to have hundreds of thousands of people with him, and his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party has asked authorities in the capital to allow a sit-in.
About 10,000 demonstrators, many of them piled into hundreds of trucks and cars, left on Friday from the eastern city of Lahore.
Addressing supporters before the departure, Khan described the endeavor as a “peaceful march” and said his political struggle against the government would continue until it agrees to hold early elections. Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s government has repeatedly said the elections will be held as scheduled in 2023.
The crowd of Khan supporters in Lahore chanted slogans, including “Imran, countless people are willing to give their lives for you.”
Laila, a mother of two from Toba Tek Singh, a city in the eastern province of Punjab, echoed those sentiments.
“I have come to Lahore to join the long march with my husband and two sons, aged nine and 11. I am not concerned about security because Khan is struggling for a better future for my children,” she said, adding that she and her family would go to Islamabad and stay until the end of the protest.
As the march set off from Lahore, large numbers of police were deployed along the 260km (160-mile) route to Islamabad.
Khan has used this tactic before – most recently in May, weeks after he lost power. But that time, police used tear gas after clashing with Khan’s supporters as they approached Islamabad’s government quarter, and the rally quickly dispersed.
This time, Khan has called on protesters to stay peaceful and given assurances that he would not enter the government “red zone”. He promised the protest would remain in areas designated by the courts and local administration.
But given the politically charged environment, fears of violence persist. The federal government, which runs Islamabad, has indicated that any deviation from approved protest plans will be met with force from the city’s police.
Al Jazeera’s Kamal Hyder, reporting from Lahore, said Khan expects more than a million people to join him on his way to Islamabad but authorities in the capital plans to block their route.
“The government in Islamabad, however, has made arrangements and put containers all over the place,” he said. “They say if there is an attempt to march on Islamabad itself, it would be stopped by full force.”
Khan’s party is in government in two of Islamabad’s neighbouring provinces, Punjab and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, and their provincial police forces are expected to provide security to marchers.
With security enhanced in the capital and augmented by paramilitary forces, there is a fear that the forces could come face to face.
Crucially, Khan lacks backing from Pakistan’s powerful military, which has directly ruled the country for more than three of the seven-and-a-half decades since independence.
Having once been regarded as close to the generals, Khan now accuses the military of supporting his opponents’ move to remove him from office. The military says it is staying out of politics, and on Thursday, the intelligence chief accused Khan of asking for “illegal and unconstitutional” support for his government.