Pakistan Cricketer Imran Khan’s Rally Shows Political Appeal

Pakistani politician and former cricketer Imran Khan
Pakistani politician and former cricketer Imran Khan. Photographer: Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images

Pakistan cricket legend and opposition politician Imran Khan drew as many as 150,000 people to a rally in Karachi, demonstrating his growing appeal amid anger over power blackouts and a troubled alliance with the U.S.

After 15 years of political irrelevance, Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, or the Movement for Justice Party, is gaining momentum as the ruling coalition fails to improve a slowing economy or fight corruption. Khan’s stance that Pakistan should pull out of a security pact with the U.S. is winning support amid criticism of army offensives against Taliban militants since 2007 that have triggered retaliatory bombings.

“Nobody can stop this tsunami,” Khan, 59, told yesterday’s gathering at the mausoleum of the country’s founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, in the port city of Karachi. He vowed to “end corruption and injustice from our society. All I want is your support.” Senior Karachi police officer Javed Odho said 100,000 to 150,000 people attended the event.

Pakistan’s president, Asif Ali Zardari, has been weakened by a confrontation with the military that has ruled Pakistan for half its history. Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, a member of Zardari’s party, warned last week of conspiracies to oust his administration and replace it with a dictatorship. Political upheaval in Pakistan may complicate U.S. plans to bolster security in the region as it withdraws troops from neighboring Afghanistan.

Khan’s party may win 20 to 40 seats in the 342-seat National Assembly if an election were held in the next year, Hasan-Askari Rizvi, a political analyst, said. Tehreek’s appeal may be restricted largely to cities where middle-class disdain for established groups like Zardari’s Pakistan People’s Party and its chief opponent, Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League, is at its strongest, Rizvi said.

‘Corrupt, Incapable’

“He is cashing in on this widespread perception that Pakistan’s main political parties are corrupt and incapable,” Rizvi said in a telephone interview from Lahore. “He has been successful in attracting large crowds but has failed to present a plan of action.”

Since an October rally in Lahore that the government estimated was attended by 100,000 people, established politicians have joined Khan’s party. Shah Mahmood Qureshi, a People’s party dissident and former foreign minister; Makhdoom Javed Hashmi, one of the most senior politicians in Sharif’s group; Jahangir Tareen, a minister in the regime of former military leader Pervez Musharraf; and Masood Sharif Khattak, a former head of Pakistan’s civilian intelligence bureau, are among those who have flocked to Khan’s side.

Change of Strategy

“After languishing on the political sidelines, Imran has changed his strategy,” Muhammad Waseem, a political science professor at the Lahore University of Management Sciences, said by phone. “He’s now accepting people in his party who have been very much part of the status quo and the corrupt system. But they are powerful and electable.”

Khan, the captain of Pakistan’s 1992 world champion cricket team, managed to win just a single seat, his own, in the last elections his party contested in 2002 as he struggled to translate his sporting renown into poll success. The recent successful rallies indicate his message may be attracting urban voters especially in his base of Punjab. The U.S.-based Pew Research Center found Khan to be the most popular political leader in the country in a June poll.

In a country where only about 1 percent of people pay income tax, Khan has demanded that leading politicians, including Zardari and Sharif, declare their wealth. He set an example last month by disclosing at a press conference in Islamabad his income and the amount of tax he has paid.

‘Strong Character’

“He has a strong character,” said Muhammad Sadiq, who had attended the rally in Karachi with his two children. “I think he will be the next prime minister. I hope he will be the next prime minister.”

Gilani is under pressure from opposition parties to call a general election before the scheduled date of February 2013 as growth in the economy stalls and his government fails to resolve chronic energy shortages that have shut factories and sparked street protests.

Pakistan cut its economic growth forecast to 3.6 percent from 4.2 percent for the year through June 2012. Policy makers plan to boost growth from 2.4 percent in the year ended June 30, one of Pakistan’s weakest expansions in a decade.

Court Probe

Pakistan’s Supreme Court is investigating claims that Zardari sought U.S. assistance to help prevent an army coup as the military stood humiliated by the strike that killed Osama bin Laden in a garrison town north of Islamabad. That account has renewed tensions with army chiefs, who have backed the court probe.

“There is no doubt that his agenda is attracting the youth in big cities as is obvious from the Karachi rally,” said Mehdi Hasan, dean of media and mass communication at Beaconhouse National University in Lahore. “But his real challenge will be to get votes from Pakistan’s rural areas which account for about 65 percent of the electorate. He has not been tested on that front.”

Khan is a critic of Pakistan’s alliance with the U.S. in the fight against militants in the northwestern regions of the country near the Afghan border, a pact that was further strained by a NATO border raid last month that killed 24 Pakistan soldiers.

He has led many rallies this year against the U.S.’s covert drone attacks, which he says kill innocent people and convince more people to take up arms.

“You can’t win this war even if you fight for another 10 years,” Khan said at a press conference on Dec. 19 in Islamabad. “Pakistan must get out of this alliance to stop the radicalization of our society. We must talk to the Taliban.”

Khan’s opponents, including Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League, attribute the party’s sudden rise to backing by the “establishment,” the term they use for the country’s army. To support their claim, they point to a large number of former ministers during Musharraf’s eight years of military rule who have joined Khan’s party.

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