As Pakistan wrestles with a political crisis Imran Khan is drawing ever-bigger crowds in his bid to become premier, but analysts remain sceptical about the national cricket hero’s chances of winning.
Khan, 59, leader of the opposition Movement for Justice Party, is hoping his anti-corruption ticket will draw voters to a rally in the southern commercial hub of Karachi on Sunday, matching a massive turnout in October.
In a crowd that shocked many observers, an October 30 rally in Lahore drew more than 100,000 supporters to hear Khan, whose national profile was cemented as the captain of the only Pakistani cricket team to clinch the World Cup.
The 1992 victory has helped propel Khan toward becoming the troubled nation’s next Prime Minister as he leads an anti-graft revolution, with some politicians having already left their own parties to join Khan’s camp.
Among the defectors is former foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, who left the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party, led by embattled President Asif Ali Zardari.
Zardari has been embroiled in a scandal over allegations that his ambassador to Washington called on the US for help to abort any coup by Pakistan’s powerful military, which on Friday ruled out any takeover.
But the so-called memo scandal, being probed by Pakistan’s top court, has prompted speculation that the government’s days are numbered and Zardari may be forced out over it, and illness, after he was treated in Dubai this month.
On Thursday, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani delivered an unprecedented tirade against the military and accused “conspirators” — whom he did not name — of plotting to bring down the government.
The uncertainty comes as Pakistanis grow increasingly concerned over corruption and energy shortfalls that regularly trigger protests across the country.
“There is now a wide gap between the government and the people because of the lack of fuel, electricity, because of bad governance, law and order and unemployment,” said Tauseef Ahmad Khan, a political analyst and professor at the Federal Urdu University in Karachi.
“But Imran Khan, who promotes transparency and talks against corruption, fills this gap, particularly among the urban and educated youth.”
On the streets, Khan’s talk of clean government and cracking down on graft has won him supporters, including Karachi cigarette-seller Merajuddin.
“Imran Khan seems like an honest guy… I want him to become prime minister,” the 52-year-old said.
Adam Ali, a policeman in Pakistan’s biggest city, said corruption runs rampant through the political elite, giving Khan a shot at grabbing power.
“All other political parties are corrupted,” he told AFP, adding that Khan was the “right guy” for the job.
However, some say Khan and his party’s emergence from the political wilderness is due to covert support from Pakistan’s military, which has staged three coups and is seen as the nation’s chief arbiter of power.
Khan has denied the claims.
“(But) he is talking against India and about making friendships with the Taliban — these are the basics of the army’s politics,” said Khan from the Federal Urdu University.
“He is only there to help the army to demolish the current government.”
However Arif Alvi, secretary-general of Khan’s party, dismissed claims the cricketer’s rise is due to the military, adding “the army can give money or ask people to join us. But it can’t by itself make Imran Khan so popular.”
Khan’s party has tapped social media, including Facebook and Twitter, to reach the all-important 18-30 age group, which represents about one-quarter of Pakistan’s population of 174 million — and more than the usual voting pool.
Nearly 600,000 people have joined Khan’s party in recent months by sending a text on their mobile phone.