Pakistan's ex-premier Imran Khan softens demand for snap vote amid crackdown on party

ISLAMABAD (AP) — Pakistan’s embattled former Prime Minister Imran Khan on Wednesday softened his year-long demand for early elections and said he is forming a committee for talks with the government to end the country's lingering political turmoil.

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

"If they tell the committee that they have a solution and the country can be governed better without me, or (if) they tell the committee the holding of elections in October benefits Pakistan, I will step back,” Khan said in a speech on his party's YouTube channel.

Wednesday's rare overture from the 70-year-old former cricket star turned Islamist politician comes amid an ongoing crackdown by Sharif's government on Khan supporters charged with 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 by an alliance of opposition parties headed by Sharif in a no-confidence vote last year, and has since been calling for new elections. He alleged, without providing evidence, that Sharif, the U.S. and the Pakistani military conspired to remove him from office — allegations they deny. Khan later backtracked saying only the military and Sharif were behind his ouster.

Earlier this month, thousands of supporters from Khan’s party staged violent protests following Khan's arrest by officials from the National Accountability Bureau, which saw him dragged out of a court in the capital, Islamabad.

Over three days of violence, Khan's supporters responded by attacking the military's headquarters in the garrison city of Rawalpindi and even burned down the residence of a top regional army commander in the eastern city of Lahore.

It drew nationwide condemnation, prompting several top leaders from Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party to resign.

In recent days, Khan has dialed down his rhetoric.

In a video message for his supporters on Wednesday, the former premier said he was ready to form a committee to hold talks with the government. He said he will step back from his demand for the holding of a snap vote if his committee is convinced that the holding of the parliamentary vote scheduled in October “benefits Pakistan.”

Under the constitution, the next vote is due in October when the parliament completes its term.

Khan's largely unexpected offer to pull back from demanding snap elections comes 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 Accountability Bureau, which quizzed him for more than four hours.

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

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

Khan’s offer to pull back comes amid a crackdown against those who were linked to the recent violence in which at least 10 people were killed. It also came 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, in a major blow also resigned Wednesday amid fears that Khan's party was being dismantled by his political opponents ahead of the next elections.

Since his ouster, Khan has been embroiled in more than 100 legal cases, and he has been granted protection from arrest in multiple cases until June 8.

The lingering political turmoil has worsened the economic crisis in cash-strapped Pakistan, which is desperately waiting for the release of a key $1.1 billion tranche from the 2019 $6 billion bailout package loan to Islamabad.

Pakistan witnessed one of the worst week's of inflation — 50% — this month after Sharif’s government slashed subsidies and raised taxes to comply with the bailout terms to secure the release of the tranche. It has been on hold since December.

On Wednesday, Sharif in televised remarks at a gathering in Islamabad denounced recent attacks by Khan’s supporters on military installations, saying “a red line was crossed” when Khan’s supporters staged violent protests.

He said all those linked to the attacks on military installations and public property will be prosecuted.