Watched over by armed elite police, Imran Khan told thousands of flag-waving supporters in the town of Okara in Pakistan that together they would end the rule of parties that had pushed the nation to the brink of ruin.
Khan, a cricket idol who spent more than 15 years as a political nobody before gaining appeal among young Pakistanis fed up with slow growth and violence, finished his speech and clambered down from the top of the converted truck he uses as a campaign vehicle. Opinion polls ahead of the May 11 parliament election that put his party behind rivals underestimate his support, he said in an interview.
“Whenever there has been a movement, analysts have never been able to predict it,” Khan, 60, said April 23 as his convoy rumbled past harvested wheat fields in Punjab province, accompanied by the sirens of security forces clearing the way. If “there is an idea that catches fire, people vote across family lines, ethnic lines.”
Pakistanis vote next month in elections that are being seen as the most important in at least four decades. Whichever party emerges victorious will face a raft of unprecedented security and economic challenges: Two of the country’s four provinces wracked with deadly Taliban and separatist insurgencies, a power crunch that has crippled factories and deepening anger at the incompetence of lawmakers.
Pakistan’s chronic insecurity is dictating the electoral campaigns: Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the son of Pakistan’s President Asif Ali Zardari and assassinated ex-premier Benazir Bhutto, cited threats to his life as he launched the Pakistan Peoples Party’s bid for re-election this week in pre-recorded video, and former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is addressing crowds from behind protective glass shields. Even so, Khan greeted his fans in Okara by smashing an imaginary ball with a cut-out cardboard cricket bat from the open top of his bus.
“I am the only one who is going out in public, they all are behind bullet-proof screens,” Khan said, sitting in a plastic chair and dressed in a traditional flowing white tunic and trousers. Sharif “is too scared to die,” Khan said in comments that reflect the grim nature of fighting elections in Pakistan. “He’s made so much money and now he wants to enjoy it.”
Amnesty International asked Pakistani authorities in an April 24 statement to investigate attacks on political candidates that have killed at least 37 people and left 183 injured nationwide. At least six people were killed last night in the second bombing this week to target an office of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, Karachi’s biggest party.
Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League faction was preferred by 37 percent in a Gallup analysis of two opinion polls last month. That’s more than double the 16 percent garnered by the Peoples Party and Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf. Punjab, where the fight between Khan and Sharif is most intense, sends more than half of 272 directly elected lower-house lawmakers to parliament.
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 since founding his party in 1996. His playboy image during his early cricket career and a failed marriage to Jemima Khan, the daughter of the late financier James Goldsmith, impeded his political journey in the Islamic nation of 196 million people.
Protected by officers from the Punjab elite police force -- “No Fear” emblazoned across the back of their black T-shirts as they brandished automatic weapons -- Khan said he supports pulling back forces from the country’s war with the Pakistani Taliban. He’d seek to rewrite relations with the U.S., which targets Islamic militants in the region with missiles fired from drone aircraft.
“We have to settle this war on terror” in Pakistan’s northwestern tribal areas, he said. “If you don’t settle that the country is gone anyway. This radicalization is growing more and more terrorism because every collateral damage creates more militants.”
Pakistan must “distance itself from the U.S. war by saying no more drone attacks,” he said, adding that he was the only Pakistani politician who had visited the seven tribal regions along the Afghan border. “There are about 800,000 to 1 million armed men in the tribal area. The number of militants is only 20,000 to 30,000. The moment the jihad narrative is taken away from the militants, you empower your tribal people.”
Retired Pakistani General Talat Masood says Khan’s strategy to deal with militants by disengaging from the U.S. war or dealing with them through negotiations would not work.
“It is highly simplistic to just think that everything will be hunky-dory in Pakistan, once the Americans go away,” Masood said in phone interview April 24. “Militants say they don’t accept Pakistan’s constitution, they don’t accept democracy; they want to impose their brand of Islam. These demands are nothing to do with Pakistan’s association with Americans.”
Wiping the sweat from his face as early summer temperatures outside rose above 35 degrees Celsius (95 degrees Fahrenheit), Khan said his party wasn’t interested in forming a coalition government in which his party would be held to ransom by what he called the feudal, corrupt politics of established parties responsible for landing Pakistan in “a quagmire.”
“If you go for a coalition, you can’t do anything,” Khan said. “So what’s the point of getting into power? Given the situation in Pakistan, which is so volatile, you will only have one chance. In the first 90 days, you have to make an impact.”
Rashid Rehman, a Lahore-based political analyst, said Khan is unlikely to join forces with either the PPP or PML-N. “In terms of the position he has taken -- a crusader against corruption, against mis-governance, his slogan of change -- his stance of not making alliances makes sense,” Rehman said April 24, adding he doesn’t expect any party to secure a clear victory.
A social-media driven campaign -- Khan has over half a million Twitter followers -- has found many supporters among the Pakistani youth. Faiyaz Ahmed, a 26-year-old Khan supporter in Okara, said the country needed Khan as he is “an honest leader who can give us electricity, education and jobs,” his voice almost drowned out by Punjabi pop music and chants in the local Urdu language of “Let’s go, let’s go, we are with Imran.”
Students interviewed at the prestigious Lahore University of Management Sciences a three-hour drive north of Okara echoed Ahmed.
“We are all for Imran Khan,” said Omar Malik, 20, a student of law, standing in a group of six students on the manicured lawns of the university campus, which is seen as Pakistan’s version of Harvard. “He is the best choice we have got to break this two-party monopoly. He has a solid plan to move this country forward and he is clean. People trust him.”
Khan “has galvanized that idea that youth can bring about a change,” Adil Najam, the university’s vice chancellor, said in an interview on April 23. “There is a sense of empowerment among the youth.” Whatever the result, the elections will be “truly historic,” and the most significant since 1971, he said.
In order to deliver, Khan said, the corrupt have to be removed from office and tax evasion curbed. For that, he needs a parliamentary majority, free from interfering partners.
“If you try to expose corruption and cut off the loopholes which people use to evade taxes, if you step in that direction, they will pull the plug. We are the only party that has not been tried. That’s why you see that groundswell, that’s why, God willing, we will win. People are sick of them.”