Khan gives hope to Pakistanis

Khan gives hope to Pakistanis

KARACHI, Pakistan
Khan gives hope to Pakistanis

A supporter of political party Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) shouts slogans as he waves the party flag with others during a rally in support of cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan (inset) in Karachi Dec 25. REUTERS photo

Cricket hero turned politician Imran Khan, 59, ramped up the anti-corruption message at a rally of over 150,000 people in Pakistan Dec. 25, boosting his image as a rising political force.

His message of cracking down on corruption and standing up to the United States has found new resonance at a time when Pakistanis are fed up with the country’s chronic insecurity and economic malaise. “I promise all you people that we’ll create a new and respectable Pakistan that will never beg to anyone if you bring us in power,” Khan told the cheering crowd as they enthusiastically waved the green, red and white flag of his party.

“I have been an honest cricketer who never fixed a match. I promise you that I’ll never fix a match either during my political career,” he said, brushing aside speculation his rise had tacit support from the military establishment.

Khan’s massive rally comes at a time of crisis in Pakistani politics. Tensions are rising between Pakistan’s civilian leaders and its generals over a memo that accused the army of plotting a coup after the U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden in May.

There are signs that Pakistan’s powerful army is fed up with President Asif Ali Zardari and wants the Supreme Court or early elections to force him from office. Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani said Dec. 22 there was a conspiracy under way to oust the government.

The army chief dismissed any rumors of a coup, however, as “speculation.” Gen. Ashfaq Kayani said in a statement released Dec. 23 the army would continue to support democracy and respect the constitution.

Khan, who cemented his national profile in 1992 when he captained the only Pakistani cricket team to clinch the World Cup, entered politics 15 years ago when he founded Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, or the Movement for Justice Party, but has struggled to translate his fame into votes.

“The first thing we need to do is end corruption,” Khan said. “I promise we will end big corruption in 90 days.”

“Who will save Pakistan? Imran Khan, Imran Khan,” chanted supporters. Two prominent politicians have joined Khan’s party in recent months: former Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, who had a falling out with the governing Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), and Javed Hashmi, a key member of the main opposition party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N).

“I came to support an honest politician who quit his lavish life for the betterment of downtrodden people,” said 29-year-old Afghan Waqar at the Dec. 25 rally. Waqar said it was the first rally she has ever attended, a sign of Khan’s ability to attract potential new voters who had all but given up on Pakistan’s political system, which is widely viewed as corrupt and unresponsive to the needs of average Pakistanis.

Khan’s rising popularity could be a concern for the U.S., given his harsh criticism of the Pakistani government’s cooperation with Washington in the fight against Islamist militants.

But popularity doesn’t always translate into political power. The majority of Pakistan’s voters are rural, where feudal relationships determine generations of political loyalty. Khan has yet to demonstrate the party machinery that the PPP and the PML-N have had decades to perfect.

National elections are not scheduled until 2013, but Khan and other oppositions have been pressing the government to hold earlier polls.

The event was held outside Khan’s traditional support base in Punjab province, where Lahore is the capital. Karachi is Pakistan’s largest city and is the capital of Sindh province.

Compiled from AP, AFP and Reuters stories by the Daily News staff.