Central & South Asia

Mass rally as Imran Khan kicks off campaign

Tens of thousands gather in Lahore as Pakistan's cricketer-turned-politician launches election bid for May 11 polls.
Last Modified: 23 Mar 2013 20:57
Thousands of supporters of Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party thronged to Lahore for the rally [EPA]

Tens of thousands of people are rallying in the Pakistani city of Lahore in support of cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party.

Khan kicked off his election campaign in earnest with the rally, held in the eastern city on Saturday.

The PTI is shaping up to be a wildcard for the May 11 parliamentary election - the first transition between democratically elected civilian-led governments in a country that has been ruled by the military for more than half of its 65-year history.

Casting himself as an anti-corruption crusader, the 60-year-old is seen as a threat to the two long-dominant parties as evidenced by the huge crowds that turned out Saturday to support him.

Thousands of people poured towards Pakistan's independence monument in Lahore, the country's second largest city, waving the red and green flags of the PTI.

Young men and women, his core support base, dominated the crowd, wearing "Imran Khan" and "Revolution" T-shirts, and caps in the party's colour.

They carried pictures of Khan, who became an icon for captaining Pakistan's cricket team to its only World Cup win in 1992 and setting up a cancer hospital that provides world-class care, free of charge to the poor.

"I will establish supremacy of law, I will not have property or bank accounts abroad," he said, alluding to accusations of corruption against politicians in Pakistan. An investigation showed last year that two thirds of lawmakers do not file tax returns.

"It is my promise to you that I will not misuse power or indulge in nepotism and I will protect Pakistani taxpayers' money," he said.

But heavy rain accompanied by strong winds forced Khan to cut short his speech, with the public address system failing before he could unveil his party's manifesto.

Khan chose the venue, where Indian Muslims made their first official demand for a separate homeland, and the timing - the 73rd anniversary of the demand - to kickstart his campaign just days after elections were called for May 11.

Al Jazeera's Kamal Hyder, reporting from the site of the rally, said that the crowd grew considerably through the evening.

"[Khan] is saying that the people of Pakistan are fed up with the traditional politics, that the people want change," he reported.

"[He] is also trying to prove that he can hold those large rallies, that he still has considerable support here in Pakistan."

'Fed up with old faces'

"We want a change," said Abdul Rehman, who travelled from the northwestern city of Peshawar which has been on the frontline of Taliban attacks and where Khan also attracts some support because of his ethnic Pashtun background.

"We are fed up with the old faces. They are the symbol of the status quo. We want to bring new faces and Imran Khan should come to power now," said another young man from Gujrat in Punjab province.

The young and the urban middle-class have been particularly drawn to Khan's determination to stamp out corruption, which is endemic in public life, tackle poverty and unemployment, and end the country's power crisis.

They see PTI, founded in 1996, as a fresh alternative to the outgoing
Pakistan People's Party and opposition Pakistan Muslim League-N of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif which have dominated civilian governments for decades.

Authorities have beefed up security for the rally and diverted traffic.

They also shut cellphone networks at the venue and immediate surrounding area as a precaution to guard against bombs, some of which are detonated via such devices.


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