Imran Khan rallies Pakistanis against government

As Pakistan gears up for elections as early as mid next year, the charismatic 58-year-old Imran Khan, long on the political periphery, is riding a wave of popularity.

Pakistani politician and former cricketer Imran Khan addresses a rally in Lahore on October 30, 2011. A crowd of thousands gathered October 30, for a rally in the Pakistani city of Lahore called by Khan to press President Asif Ali Zardari to step down. The rally, seen as a show of strength, comes two days after Sharif's brother Shahbaz, attracted some 30,000 people at an anti-Zardari protest also in the key political battleground of Lahore.   AFP PHOTO/Arif ALI
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LAHORE, PAKISTAN // It was a spectacular sight. From the hip, urban young to ordinary citizens and party workers, more than 100,000 people waving red and green flags turned out in Pakistan's eastern city of Lahore to support cricket legend-turned-politician Imran Khan, in the country's biggest opposition rally in decades.

As Pakistan gears up for elections as early as mid next year, the charismatic 58-year-old Mr Khan, long on the political periphery, is riding a wave of popularity buoyed by his tough stand against graft, his criticism of US intervention and a promise of social justice, hope and change in a country where many voters are disillusioned by a political establishment widely accused of corruption and incompetence.

Analysts say frustration in the electorate with the mainstream parties, led by the ruling Pakistan People's Party (PPP) and the main opposition Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), has reached a tipping point, underlined by the success of Mr Khan's hometown rally just over a week ago.

"To Imran's standard are flocking the youth and rebellious at heart, students and workers, the educated, working women and smart girls from rich neighbourhoods and even religious types," Ayaz Amir, a leading commentator, wrote in the English language The News recently.

"No cry (is) louder or more insistent in Pakistan today than the call for change.

"The only man fitting the bill as an instrument of change is Imran Khan. All the other knights of the political arena are exhausted figures, symbols of the discredited past and therefore part of the problem the nation is confronted with."

Mr Khan, who led cricket-crazy Pakistan to World Cup victory in 1992, had largely failed to fire public support since he formed his Tehrik-e-Insaaf (Justice Party) in 1996, despite public works that have included building the country's only specialist private-sector cancer hospital.

But, speaking before the Lahore rally, he was confident his fortunes were changing.

"I have been predicting our sweep for one year now. Six months ago, everyone laughed at me. Then they stopped laughing,"

Mr Khan told The National at his mansion in the hills of the outskirts of the capital, Islamabad, as his dog played around his feet.

Mr Khan says President Asif Ali Zardari, of the PPP, and the opposition PML-N's Nawaz Sharif, twice prime minister, are corrupt and have sold Pakistani interests out to the United States, which is pushing Pakistan to act against militants through a combination of diplomatic pressure and financial incentives.

The US is pressing Pakistan to help it in Afghanistan by cutting off insurgent sanctuaries in its territory and bringing "reconcilable" Taliban to the negotiating table.

A survey in June by the Washington-based Pew Research Center found that 73 per cent of Pakistanis have an unfavorable view of the US.

"There is no difference between Zardari and Nawaz," Mr Khan said. "Both are them follow pro-American policies. Both are neo-liberals."

The increasing use of aerial drones by the US against militants on Pakistani soil, and the consequent killing of civilians, has fuelled anti-American sentiment across the country.

Pakistani governments have been playing the role of a "hired gun" for the US, Mr Khan says.

"What we can do is facilitate the exit strategy in Afghanistan and a peace settlement," he says. "What's the point of killing people and creating more enemies? It's a never ending war."

But others, including Mr Sharif, are seeking to capitalise on the growing national sentiment. His party, rejects US aid in Punjab province, where it is in power under his brother. And he has also been fiercely critical of drone attacks.

Pakistan's economy is tanking, inflation is rampant, foreign investment has dried up and many Pakistanis have died in attacks by anti-government militants. Thousands have been forced from their homes by fighting between government forces and militants.

The country has also seen several military coups topple civilian leaders since its formation in 1947, including Mr Sharif's own ouster in 1999 by then military chief General Pervez Musharraf, who took over as president.

The military and intelligence services maintain a critical role in Pakistan's politics and foreign policy.

His critics say Mr Khan's politics have been vague and contradictory, that he relies too much on his charisma.

They say he is too soft on Islamists and militants - he is known by some as "Taliban Khan" for favouring negotiations - his party lacks other inspiring figures, he is vague on economic policy and he is not strong on building necessary alliances in a fractious political system.

"Certainly he has moved from the periphery to the main, but harsh electoral realities haven't dissipated with one impressive show of street power," said Mariam Chaudhry, an Islamabad-based broadcast and print journalist.

"To rise above the down and dirty, and mobilise his rusty campaign machinery in time for the elections is a tall order for the Khan," Chaudry said.

He has also spurned involvement in his party by established politicians, despite their practical experience. Instead, he dismisses them as part of the rot afflicting the country.

Unusual in Pakistan, where local or religious allegiances are strong, Mr Khan's appeal stretches from the political powerhouse of Punjab, Pakistan's most populous state, through the urban middle class to the lawless tribal north-western areas neighbouring Afghanistan, where his anti-war message resonates strongly.

"There is no left wing or right wing. In Pakistan, you have right or wrong politics." Mr Khan said.

"A liberal in Pakistan today means anyone who is a slave to US policies. Anyone who is a nationalist can be clubbed as a right-winger. My economic policies are left-leaning. We want a welfare state.

"Now, just watch how the whole political scene changes in the next six months," Mr Khan said. "Nobody can stop the revolution."