Pakistani Cricket Star Tries Again to Turn Adulation Into Political Support
The New York Times: International
By Salman Masood

LAHORE, Pakistan — Imran Khan, a Pakistani cricket star turned politician, kicked off his populist campaign for national elections with a huge rally here on Saturday, a national holiday, in a symbolic move timed to tap into surging nationalist sentiment and bolster his political party, which has never won more than a single seat in Parliament and is flagging in the polls.

Officials of Mr. Khan’s party had expected a record number of people to attend the event here in Lahore, an eastern city known as the political capital of Pakistan.

“We are expecting 400,000 to 500,000 people,” Hamid Khan, a lawyer and a leader of the party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, or the Movement for Justice, said in an interview Saturday afternoon before the rally.

“Today’s event will be a game changer,” said Mr. Khan, the lawyer, who is no relation to the politician. “It will be a harbinger of change against status quo forces.”

But a much smaller crowd turned up, estimated at just over 100,000. The rally ended abruptly Saturday evening under heavy rain and thunder, and Imran Khan had to cut short his speech.

“Change is not about to come,” Mr. Khan said to thunderous applause, promising to never use public office for personal gains. “Change has arrived.”

“I will keep all of my wealth inside Pakistan,” he said, in a veiled criticism of his political opponents. “I will not set up factories abroad.”

He said he had entered politics because he was worried about the nation’s youth. “You have to stand by me to fight injustice and tyranny,” he exhorted the crowd.

Mr. Khan chose March 23, a national holiday known as Republic Day, to begin his campaign ahead of parliamentary elections scheduled for May 11. If Mr. Khan were elected to Parliament, and his party were to win a plurality of seats, he could become the next prime minister, though analysts say there is little chance of that.

Mr. Khan, 60, who retains his youthful swagger and athletic physique, is particularly popular with young Pakistanis, who form the core of his support and make up approximately 40 percent of the country’s registered voters. However, it was not clear how much of this adulation — which borders on the cultlike — would translate into electoral success.

On Saturday. the crowd erupted in an impassioned frenzy as pop stars took turns on the stage to sing between the political speeches. Young men and women sang along loudly, throwing their arms up in the air and waving party flags.

“We have had enough with traditional politicians,” said Faisal Younis, 38, a textile trader from Lahore. He said the mainstream parties had had their shot. “Now, others should get a chance.”Mr. Khan outstrips his opponents in public popularity, but his party has won only one seat in Parliament since it was founded in 1996 with an aim to challenge entrenched politics and establish accountability and justice. He was elected to Parliament in 2002, but languished on the political sidelines for years before being catapulted to the political forefront in October 2011, when a spontaneous and enthusiastic public response to a rally in Lahore, the provincial capital of Punjab Province, drew at least 100,000 people.

Mr. Khan’s populist slogans and antiwar statements have increased his appeal to voters unnerved by a spate of terrorist attacks and disillusioned by a crippled economy.

After the 2011 rally, many politicians and political hopefuls asked to join his ranks, and Mr. Khan, who had spurned almost all politicians, welcomed most of the newcomers, even some who had been tainted with charges of corruption. After that, Mr. Khan’s popularity plummeted as Pakistanis accused him of compromising his earlier principled stand.

A poll released in January by the International Republican Institute put the approval rating for Mr. Khan’s party at 18 percent. His main rival, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif — whose party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, hopes to form the next government — had an approval rating of 32 percent. The Pakistan Peoples Party, led by President Asif Ali Zardari, came in last with 14 percent.

The campaign kickoff is being seen as a bellwether of larger national political trends. Political analysts say that any electoral gains Mr. Khan wins will eat into the political territory that has generally been considered Mr. Sharif’s home base: Punjab. Lahore is the hometown of both Mr. Khan and Mr. Sharif.

Punjab, the most populous and prosperous of the country’s four provinces, decides the political outcome of any election. The party that wins a majority in Punjab is almost guaranteed to win the right to form a new government.

But analysts see Mr. Khan’s party as essentially a spoiler, saying that even if it siphons off votes from Mr. Sharif’s party, it will not prevail in the general elections. The Pakistan Peoples Party will end up reaping the benefit, they say.

Mr. Khan’s and Mr. Sharif’s parties are “aiming at the same conservative Punjab-dominated vote bank,” Najam Sethi, a veteran journalist, said in an editorial in The Friday Times, a Lahore-based weekly. If Mr. Khan’s party is able to take votes away from Mr. Sharif’s, the net gainer will be the Pakistan Peoples Party, he said.

Arif Rafiq, a commentator on Pakistani politics and an adjunct scholar with the Middle East Institute, said in an e-mail, “There are a lot of ways the election results and postelection coalition-making could go. A weaker Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz could put the Pakistan Peoples Party in a better position to form a coalition, Mr. Rafiq said. And the Nawaz party, even if it gains a plurality in Parliament, “could have difficulty finding coalition partners,” he said.

Officials of Imran Khan’s party dismissed such criticism.

“There is an attempt to cut the importance and significance of P.T.I.,” said Mr. Khan, the lawyer. In Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Provinces, he said, Mr. Khan’s and Mr. Sharif’s parties will be the main competitors, and the Pakistan Peoples Party “is not figuring anywhere.”

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