Imran Khan, the former Pakistani cricket captain and now the country’s rising political star, said anger over corruption and the sluggish economy is fueling a “revolution” that will oust the ruling coalition in elections he predicts will be held this year.
Buoyed after drawing more than 100,000 people to rallies in two of Pakistan’s biggest cities last year, Khan forecast in an interview that his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, or the Movement for Justice party, will be able to feed off the sense of public grievance to end 15 years on the political margins.
“If the two big parties get together against us, they will still lose because Pakistan has changed,” Khan, 59, said Jan. 21 at his 38-acre estate outside the nation’s capital, Islamabad. “There is a revolution that has taken place.”
Khan’s challenge comes as Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani is engaged in confrontations with the Supreme Court and the army, raising the chances that polls scheduled for February 2013 may be called early. Political turmoil risks deepening a near 40 percent annual slump in foreign investment in the $175 billion economy and hindering U.S. efforts to mend a strained relationship with Pakistan that’s central to its bid to stabilize Afghanistan.
While Khan says middle-class and youth frustration over the failure of the Pakistan People’s Party-led government to create jobs or end power shortages that have closed factories will enable his party to “sweep” to victory in the next election, analysts such as Rashid Khan dismiss such claims as unrealistic.
“Attracting big crowds doesn’t mean an election victory,” Khan, a professor of international relations at the University of Sargodha in central Pakistan, said by phone Jan. 22. “There is no doubt that he’s attracting young and first-time voters, but completely uprooting established political parties is a tall claim in a country where linguistic and regional influences run very deep.”
Gilani’s four-year-rule is under threat after the country’s top court began contempt proceedings that could force him from office for failing to re-open corruption cases against President Asif Ali Zardari. In an unprecedented hearing last week, Gilani defended his actions before the judges, saying the constitution grants the president immunity from prosecution. The court will examine that issue when it meets again Feb. 1.
“Public opinion is firmly behind the Supreme Court,” Imran Khan said from the veranda of his home dressed in a jacket, jeans and a red scarf. “If the court passes a contempt judgment against Gilani, then the people will be standing behind the court. And I will certainly be there if Gilani tries to take on the court.”
The top court also today resumed hearing claims that Zardari sought U.S. assistance to help prevent a possible coup as the army stood humiliated by the American strike that killed Osama bin Laden in a garrison town north of Islamabad in May. The allegations have renewed tensions with military chiefs, who, along with the principal opposition Pakistan Muslim League, have backed the court probe.
Khan discounted rumors in Pakistan that the army may be positioning to oust the government as it has done on three previous occasions. “I don’t see the chance of military intervention,” he said. “Pakistan has moved on. The time of military coups has gone.” The military has ruled Pakistan for half its history.
Khan, who led Pakistan to victory in the 1992 cricket world cup, managed to win just a single seat, his own, in the last election his party contested in 2002 as he struggled to translate his sporting renown into poll success. His playboy image during his early cricket career and his failed marriage to Jemima Khan, the daughter of the late financier James Goldsmith, impeded his political journey in this Islamic nation of 196 million people.
That changed as unemployment, crime, terrorism and corruption eroded support for established politicians, according to the U.S.-based Pew Research Center. Its 2011 survey found Khan to be the country’s most popular political leader, with 68 percent of those asked expressing a favorable view of him. That compared to 11 percent for Zardari and 37 percent for Gilani.
In a country where only about 1 percent of people pay income tax, Khan has demanded that leading politicians, including Zardari and Muslim League leader Nawaz Sharif, declare their wealth. He set an example last year by disclosing at a press conference in Islamabad his income and the amount of tax he has paid.
Pakistani politicians have become too removed from the struggles and insecurity facing ordinary people, Khan said, citing their “bullet-proof cars and cavalcades of armed guards” and their “palatial” homes. His own has a swimming pool and views of the forested Margalla hills.
Pakistan’s economy may grow 4 percent in the year ending June 30, Finance Minister Abdul Hafeez Shaikh said Jan. 21. Expansion of 2.4 percent the year before, when output was curtailed by the worst ever monsoon floods, was among the lowest in a decade.
Foreign direct investment fell 37 percent to $531.2 million in the first six months of the financial year. Inflation (PACPGENY) slowed to below 10 percent for the first time in two years in December. Textile shipments, which account for 60 percent of export earnings, may drop by about a third this fiscal year as gas shortages force factories to close, according to the All Pakistan Textile Mills Association.
Khan repeated his call for an army cease-fire and negotiations with Islamic guerrillas based in the country’s northwest who continue to kill civilians and security personnel. “You can’t talk and fight,” Khan said. Militant strikes have killed at least 35,000 Pakistanis since 2006, according to government estimates.
He has also supported pulling out of a security alliance with the U.S., arguing that American strikes along the border with Afghanistan fuel violence in Pakistan and help the Pakistani Taliban recruit followers.
“Pakistan can’t be a war zone and expect investment,” Khan said. “Every day the government stays in power, the economy is sinking. As a Pakistani, the quicker the election is held the better.”
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