|Former cricket star-turned politician Imran Khan has brought out crowds in unprecedented numbers, but he’s often criticised for being hyped up beyond his actual political impact [EPA]|
“I now present you the man who will save Pakistan.”
That’s how cricket star-turned politician Imran Khan was introduced to a crowd of more than 100,000 of his supporters on Sunday.
The rally in Karachi, Pakistan’s largest and most diverse city, was a crucial test of the vitality of Khan’s recent popular surge.
But the crowds poured in and the energy was infectious.
“Imran Khan is the only hope that we have right now,” said 28-year-old Shohaid Siddqui as he proudly waved a flag in support of Khan’s party, Tehreek-e-Insaf (or Movement for Justice).
Frost Over the World – Imran Khan:
His friend, 23-year-old Mohammed Omar added: “We need revolutionary change, and that change will come in the form of Imran Khan.”
This hunger for change was echoed by others at the rally including average Pakistanis who have become disillusioned by successive governments that have sunk their country deeper into conflict.
“Our Pakistan is dying. Now, we want someone to come into power and give our country support and do something for Pakistan. This is a new change. Maybe out of this we will get something,” said 52-year-old Musarat Jumani.
Khan, who first gained fame after leading his country to win the cricket World Cup in 1992, called his campaign a “good tsunami that will destroy injustice and corruption”.
He promises to eliminate all major government corruption within 90 days of taking office.
In a country where the current President Asif Ali Zardari has been marred by corruption allegations and is famously referred to as “Mr 10-per cent”, Khan’s anti-corruption stance has won him support.
He has vowed to turn Pakistan into a “Muslim welfare state”, where citizens would get free and equal access to education and healthcare. In speaking about what this might look like, he cited examples of welfare systems in the United Kingdom and Scandinavian countries.
Khan has also tapped into anger about Islamabad’s relationship with Washington. He has publicly, and vocally, come out against US drone strikes in Pakistan and called for an end to the country’s dependence on American aid money.
But not everyone agrees that Khan is the answer to the country’s ills.
“People have come out here for all the song and dance, for a good time. Yes, he’s done that. But do you think all these people really know what he stands for?” wondered one Pakistani.
Saadi Agha, who attended the rally but does not support Khan, says his ideology is “stale”.
“It does not offer any new structural changes in Pakistan,” Agha says.
But he acknowledges that Khan has re-energised the populace.
“What he’s done is revived a dead scene; the masses have come out.“
– Saadi Agha
“What he’s done is revived a dead scene; the masses have come out. If this continues, it’s good. I don’t think I can remember a rally like this ever happening in Karachi before.”
In a city beset by political and ethnic violence, the festival-like atmosphere at the rally was in itself significant.
On October 30, Khan staged a similar rally in his home city of Lahore – that gathering also attracted more than 100,000 people, another historic turnout.
But popularity doesn’t always translate into political power.
The majority of Pakistan’s voters live in rural areas, dominated by feudal systems that prescribe political loyalty.
So far, this tremendous outpouring of support has only been seen in major urban areas like Karachi and Lahore.
Also, Khan is yet to present a concrete plan of how his party would govern if in power. He has promised to release those details in the coming days.
Additionally, though Khan has been active in the country’s political scene for 15 years, the Tehreek-e-Insaf party has only briefly held one seat in parliament.
Whether or not Imran Khan is the man who will “save Pakistan” is yet to be seen. Analysts say that if he is able to keep this momentum going he will become a major political player.
But what is becoming more apparent is that the country is ripe for change.
Pakistanis want someone to get them off their sinking ship.