By SALMAN MASOOD
NY Times: October 30, 2011
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — An antigovernment rally in Lahore, led by the former cricket star Imran Khan, attracted a huge crowd estimated at more than 100,000 people on Sunday evening. The rally represented what supporters and some political analysts said was Mr. Khan’s emergence as a serious challenger to the governing Pakistan Peoples Party and its longtime rival, the Pakistan Muslim League-N.
Mr. Khan assailed the leaders of both parties — President Asif Ali Zardari and Nawaz Sharif — as creatures of the status quo, and he has been a loud and frequent critic of Pakistan’s alliance with the United States, saying it was motivated by money.
The size of the crowd that Mr. Khan drew in Lahore, the provincial capital of Punjab and a traditional stronghold of the Muslim League-N, surprised his opponents and made an impression on political analysts.
Arif Ali/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Mr. Khan, 58, has languished on the political sidelines for years, and his political party, Tehreek-e-Insaf, or Justice Party, has no seats in the current Parliament. But his popularity has soared recently as voters, especially younger ones, have grown disillusioned with the establishment parties. A survey conducted by an American polling organization, the Pew Research Center, found in June that Mr. Khan had become the most popular political figure in the country.
After the crowd gave him a rousing welcome at the rally on Sunday evening, Mr. Khan threw out challenges to both Mr. Zardari and Mr. Sharif on the question of personal integrity, urging them both to disclose their assets or face civil disobedience.
The government is not required to call a general election until February 2013, but with a sinking economy, rising inflation, power struggles and terrorism taking a toll on the nation, opposition parties have begun pushing for an earlier date.
The Muslim League-N staged its own rally in Lahore last week and called on President Zardari to step down.
Critics and political opponents dismiss Mr. Khan as a political nobody and question his judgment and his party’s capacity to mount a serious campaign, let alone to govern. They say it relies entirely on Mr. Khan’s personal charisma and lacks any other substantial figures in its ranks.
In an interview at his Islamabad residence on Friday, Mr. Khan shrugged off the criticism.
“People confuse two types of politics,” Mr. Khan said as he sprawled on a sofa in the house, situated on a hill that overlooks the city. “One is the politics of movement. The other is traditional power-based politics. Tehreek-e-Insaf is never going to win the traditional way.”
Mr. Khan opposes cooperating with the United States against militants based in the restive northwestern regions of the country near the Afghan border. He says that Pakistan should not send its own forces to conduct operations there and should not allow American drone strikes there, either, because of the civilian casualties they cause. He favors a negotiated peace instead.
Mr. Khan led 2,000 people in a protest outside the Parliament in Islamabad on Friday, opposing American drone strikes, and he reiterated his stance at the rally on Sunday.
“My message to America is that we will have friendship with you, but we will not accept any slavery,” he said. “We will help you in a respectable withdrawal of your troops from Afghanistan, but we will not launch a military operation in Pakistan for you.”
The atmosphere at the Sunday rally was electric. Several famous pop singers warmed up the crowd with music before Mr. Khan’s speech, giving the rally the feel of a concert. Women and girls in colorful clothes and sunglasses and young men in Western and national dress filled the audience.
Mr. Khan’s speech itself was bit of a letdown to some, wayward and unfocused, but his fans did not mind.
“I felt great,” said Said Chaudhry, 26. “It felt like you are part of something that has all the potential of turning into something revolutionary.”
In the interview on Friday, Mr. Khan said he expected the Lahore rally to be seen as a test of his political future.
“Lahore decides what happens in Punjab,” he said. “Punjab decides what happens in Pakistan.”
Analysts said that drawing a big crowd in Lahore would not necessarily translate into electoral success, but it could propel Mr. Khan to the forefront of the political conversation.
“I think it’s a historic turning point in the country’s politics,” said Rasul Baksh Rais, who teaches at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. “It showed that people are deeply touched with the message of hope and change, and also with the frustration that is written all over Pakistan with the existing political parties.”
He said that after 15 years on the political fringes, Mr. Khan may have his moment now. “Today, he has been able to get his message across,” Mr. Rais said. “This is the beginning. And it will result in a big change in a year or two.”