Imran Khan Laps Up Acclaim in Pakistan

Declan Walsh for The Guardian

For a decade Imran Khan has occupied the hinterland, if not quite the wilderness, of Pakistani politics. The cricket legend has won just one seat in parliament – his own – and been scorned by critics as a celebrity windbag at best and a Taliban sympathiser at worst.

But this weekend Khan dramatically transformed his standing at a stroke, bursting onto the national stage with an impressive show of street power that jolted Pakistan’s largest parties and turned received wisdom on its head.

At least 100,000 people gathered to hear Khan issue a rousing call to political “revolution” spiced with strident denunciations of government corruption.

“Declare your assets or face the wrath of the people,” he shouted, drawing roars of approval, in the largest rally for decades in Lahore, Pakistan’s political heartland.

The crowd reflected the vein that Khan has tapped – young, urban and mostly educated Pakistanis who have grown disillusioned by the chaotic politicking and inept governance of the traditional political elite. “It’s an activation of the upper middle class – people who, over the years, haven’t had a voice in Pakistani politics,” said political analyst Mosharraf Zaidi.

In contrast Khan enjoys a reputation for being incorruptible and straight-talking, polished by a glint of fame. Also in Lahore was his ex-wife Jemima, who remains a supporter, and Jennifer Robinson, a London media lawyer whose clients include WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. “Yes we Khan,” she tweeted afterwards.

The rally set the political scene abuzz with speculation; “Imran’s Lahore rally stuns opponents” read the headline in Dawn. But large questions loom about whether he can transform his acclaim into power.

Despite his claims of a “revolution” against President Asif Ali Zardari, Khan is more likely to hurt Nawaz Sharif, the opposition leader who considers Lahore his political base. Sunday’s rally crowned a wave of smaller yet well-attended rallies across the surrounding Punjab province over the past three months.

“It’s been slowly taking root. People are getting disillusioned, they saw Imran as more dynamic and focused,” said Najam Sethi, a veteran journalist and analyst.

National elections are not scheduled until 2013, although a midterm Senate election next March – which is likely to see the Pakistan People’s party led by Zardari seize control of the upper house of parliament – has caused the political temperature to soar.

Electoral success for Khan would likely fracture politics further – a prospect that would please Pakistan’s spymasters and generals, who have traditionally liked their civilian leaders both shaken and stirred. Khan has faced accusations that his new-found popularity is being quietly boosted by the military, and his Lahore speech was notable for his lack of criticism of the army. Khan denies any link. “I think Imran and the army will get along very well – if he ever comes to power,” said Sethi. He entered politics in 1996 as one of the most loved public figures in a cricket-crazy nation, and the founder of a cancer hospital that remains one of Pakistan’s most respected charities.

But his politics have been more controversial. He supported Pervez Musharraf’s coup in 1999, sided with Islamist mullahs and, in 2009, opposed an army operation against the Taliban in the Swat valley, arguing it was better to talk than fight. He boycotted the 2008 election, a move that relegated him to the chat show fringe of politics.

But in recent years he has steadily built his popularity among young Pakistanis, capitalising on disillusionment with political corruption and anger at US drone strikes in the tribal belt.

His Lahore rally echoed many of those themes. Pakistan wanted “independence, not slavery” in its relations with the US, he said, before announcing that he would be leaving for China hours later. “I am leaving at the invitation of the Chinese government. Friendship with them will be pursued to the fullest,” he said.

But critics said that while his speech was high on inflammatory rhetoric – including gratuitous attacks at some rivals and one diplomat – it was lacking in concrete prescriptions. “His next challenge is to show that he understands Pakistan’s problems – and can formulate policy to deal with them” said Zaidi.

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  1. It was a wonderful occassion, for sure! I just wrote a blog about it,too, even though I only watched it from a distance and wasn’t actually there. Declan Walsh does a good job writing for the Guardian from Pakistan.

    • Cool, I will check out your blog. thanks for visiting mine..please join us on facebook also! God Bless~

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