Pakistan's ousted Prime Minister Imran Khan has accused the country's coalition government this week of delaying fresh national elections to appoint "a new army chief of their own choice" to protect their alleged corrupt practices and ill-gotten wealth.
Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif, his coalition partners and the powerful military on Monday denounced the charges the populist former leader leveled while addressing a massive anti-government overnight rally in Faisalabad.
The controversy comes as a debate rages in national media and political circles on possible successors to incumbent Chief of Army Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa, who is scheduled to retire in November.
"They want to bring in an army chief of their choice because they have stolen away money," Khan told the gathering of his opposition Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party late on Sunday.
"They fear that if a strong, patriotic army chief is appointed, he will question them about their stolen wealth," he said, and added that "whoever is on the top of the merit list should be appointed" to lead the army.
Sharif took to Twitter to dismiss Khan's comments as "despicable utterances," saying they were aimed at maligning state institutions.
A spokesman for the armed forces said the military "is aghast at the defamatory and uncalled for statement" by Khan. "Regrettably, an attempt has been made to discredit and undermine senior leadership of [the] Pakistan Army," he added.
The spokesman noted that the process of appointing the army chief is "well defined" in the constitution, and that "scandalizing" it is "unfortunate and disappointing."
Pakistan's constitution allows the prime minister to pick the military head from of a list of generals submitted by the outgoing chief. The army chief's term is three years.
Bajwa was due to retire in 2019, but then-Prime Minister Khan gave him an extension, which analysts say stemmed largely from close ties between the two.
Khan, who was deposed through a Sharif-led parliamentary no-confidence vote in April, has been staging massive rallies of his party supporters nationwide to press for early general elections, alleging that his successor conspired with the United States to oust him from office.
The military has repeatedly dismissed elected governments and ruled Pakistan for about half its history. Critics say even if the generals are not in power, they influence decision making in matters related to the country's foreign, security and domestic policies. Tensions with generals have traditionally cost prime ministers their rules in Pakistan, according to Pakistani politicians and independent observers.
The military denies it interferes in national politics, saying it does not support any political party.
Khan has acknowledged in recent interviews that his relationship with Bajwa began fracturing last October over the appointment of the head of the country's prime intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence, and it eventually cost him his rule.
He also has indirectly accused Bajwa of backing what Khan claims was a U.S.-plotted "regime change" in Pakistan but offers no evidence. Washington vehemently rejects the charges.
Both the Pakistani government and the military also deny Khan's allegations.
Sharif has rejected calls for new elections until his government completes its mandatory term in August 2023.
Arif Rafiq, a nonresident scholar with Washington's Middle East Institute, said civilian governments in Pakistan tend to want to appoint an army chief based on their own political considerations.
"But the idea that a civilian leader can fully control the army ends up being proven a fallacy," he told VOA, citing the dismissal of previous elected governments through military coups.
"Khan's recent statements escalate his battle of words with the senior army brass, making reconciliation less likely. But he's still the favorite to win the next elections. If there are to be free and fair elections within the next year, a reconciliation or detente between Khan and the army is necessary," Rafiq said.
The rise in political tensions comes as Pakistan struggles with unprecedented flash floods stemming from heavy, erratic monsoon rains. More than 1,300 people have been killed in the disaster, including almost 500 children; 13,000 people have been injured, and millions have been made homeless.
The flooding is the worst Pakistan has experienced in decades. Officials estimate that floodwaters have covered nearly one-third of the country and almost half of its crucial croplands, and that nearly 1.5 million houses have been washed away or damaged.