LAHORE: Pakistani cricket legend-turned politician Imran Khan Saturday, speaking to tens and thousands of party supporters, vowed to be truthful and loyal with them even after assuming powers in run up to the historic national election later this spring before heavy rain interrupted his speech.
The 60-year-old Khan is shaping up to be the biggest wildcard in the May 11 parliamentary election – the first transition between democratically elected governments in a country that has experienced three military coups.
“I only care for you Pakistanis and that’s why I am in politics. Come join my hands to build a new Pakistan,” he said speaking at the much anticipated March 23 rally near the country's towering national monument, the Minar-i-Pakistan.
On electoral alliance, he ruled out any potential agreement with any ‘status quo’ parties giving references to Nawaz Sharif and Maulana Fazlur Rehman.
Khan made six promises to the party supporters that he will always speak truth “if God willing we assume power in the country.”
He promised to fight to end oppression from the country. “I will remain in the country and will keep all my wealth in country also,” stated Khan while making third promise.
“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.
As his fifth promise, the PTI chief said that he will protect taxpayers' money and will make sure that it is not spent on governor and CM houses. “We will break walls of these palaces after assuming power and will build libraries and schools instead,” he added.
“We will stand with overseas Pakistanis and will protect their rights,” Khan made his sixth promise.
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.
“People left and the meeting is over,” senior police officer Rai Tahir told AFP.
Shah Mehmood Qureshi, a former foreign minister who defected to PTI, said the manifesto would be formally announced at a press conference "over the next few days."
“Imran Khan put up a good show,” analyst Najam Sethi told a private television channel, adding it was a sizeable crowd but not as large as Khan had promised.
“He has entered the quarter finals. But he will have to struggle hard to bowl out (main opposition leader) Nawaz Sharif who is heading towards his century,” Sethi said.
After over a decade of trying to gain a foothold in Pakistani politics, he has finally elbowed his way into the big league. Casting himself as a populist anti-corruption crusader challenging the traditional political elites, he is seen as a threat to the two parties that have long dominated elections.
Khan has almost mythical status in cricket-crazy Pakistan as the captain of the national team that won the 1992 World Cup – the only time the country has claimed the sport's highest prize – and polls as the nation's most popular politician by a wide margin. But it's uncertain how effective he will be in converting his personal appeal into votes for his party.
Much of Khan's support has come from young, middle class Pakistanis in the country's major cities, a potentially influential group. Almost half of Pakistan's more than 80 million registered voters are under the age of 35, but the key question is whether Khan can get his young supporters to show up at the polling booth on election day.
''This is going to swing the election,'' Khan told The Associated Press in an interview before the rally. ''The youth is standing with us and change.''
Khan, one of the few Pakistani politicians with a squeaky-clean image, broke into the political mainstream in the last 18 months with a message that capitalizes on widespread discontent with the country's traditional politicians. They are seen as more interested in lining their pockets than dealing with pressing problems facing Pakistan, such as stuttering economic growth, pervasive energy shortages and deadly attacks by Islamist militants.
On foreign policy, he has also struck a chord by criticizing Pakistan's unpopular alliance with the United States and controversial American drone attacks targeting al-Qaida and Taliban militants in the country's tribal region that borders Afghanistan.
His message has helped him rally huge crowds in Pakistan's major cities, including more than 100,000 people who showed up Saturday in the heart of Lahore, the capital of Pakistan's most populous province, Punjab. The province will be the main battleground in determining which party wins enough seats in the National Assembly to form the country's next government.
''We want to clean up corruption. We want justice. We want electricity, and only Imran Khan can do it,'' said Mohammed Wasim, a 21-year-old student from Lahore and one of many first-time voters attending the rally.
Many of the people at the rally were middle class youths like Wasim who danced to blaring music over loudspeakers and waved the red, white and green flag of Khan's party, Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaf (PTI), or the Movement for Justice. But plenty of older Pakistanis, some of whom had switched from other parties out of frustration, also turned up.
Khan hopes the momentum from the rally will push forward what he calls his political ''tsunami'' and help his party win a majority of the 272 National Assembly seats that are up for election. That would allow Khan to form the next government and position him to become prime minister.
He is up against the two groups that have for decades dominated the country's politics, the Pakistan People's Party (PPP), which led the most recent government, and the main opposition party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N). Both have broad alliances with local leaders who use political patronage, such as government jobs and contracts, to shore up support.
''The reason why we are in politics is to break the stranglehold of these two parties who have plundered this country,'' Khan told the AP.
Many analysts are less bullish and believe the PTI will win 20-40 seats, many of them in urban areas of Punjab. Many predict the PML-N, which is led by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, will benefit from broad discontent and lead the polls, while the PTI will come in third behind the recently ruling PPP. The conventional wisdom is that no party will win a majority of the seats, and the PML-N will end up having to put together a weak coalition government.
''I think third place is the safest bet for Khan's party, but if he could gain second, which is not impossible, it would be a big political revolution for the country,'' said Rasul Baksh Rais, a political science professor at Lahore University of Management Sciences – AP/AFP/DawnNews