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'Rising star' of Pakistani politics: Charismatic Khan wows 100,000 at rally

Professional sportsman-turned-politician Imran Khan has cemented his standing as a force in Pakistan politics, observers said Monday after his rally in Karachi brought at least 100,000 supporters onto the streets.
/ Source: staff and news service reports

Professional sportsman-turned-politician Imran Khan has cemented his standing as a force in Pakistan politics, observers said Monday after his rally in Karachi brought at least 100,000 supporters onto the streets.

Khan, 59, is riding a wave of dissatisfaction with the government of President Asif Ali Zardari, who is facing challengers from the military and political opponents over his handling of the country and its troubled alliance with the United States.

In a rousing speech punctuated with patriotic musical refrains, he pledged, if elected, to curb Pakistan's endemic corruption and referred to his surging popularity as a "tsunami."

"He is riding a wave of popular politics right now," said Mutahir Ahmed, a professor of International Relations at the University of Karachi told Reuters. "There is a lot of frustration among ordinary people, as well as political workers right now, which he is cashing on."

Several recent polls have shown Khan is the country’s most popular politician, who entered politics in 1996, four years after he captained the only Pakistani cricket team to clinch the World Cup.

However, popularity has not always translated into influence. In the last 15 years, his Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf (PTI), or Pakistan Movement for Justice, has only briefly held one seat in parliament - Khan's own.  Most analysts say Khan could score an upset of 20 to 30 seats in parliament, but that's not enough to give him the premiership.  It is enough to make him a major political player, however — or even a kingmaker.

"It's too premature to get into speculation of whether he becomes prime minister or not but the chances of his party getting into parliament look very good," security analyst Imtiaz Gul told Reuters.

Sunday’s rally, one of the largest held in the city in recent years, comes at a time of crisis in Pakistani politics. Tensions are rising between Pakistan's civilian leaders and its generals over a memo that accused the army of plotting a coup after the U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden in May.

There are signs that Pakistan's powerful army is fed up with Zardari, who co-chairs the ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), and wants the supreme court or early elections to force him from office. The army chief dismissed any rumors of a coup, however, as "speculation."

Roads jammed for 10 hours
All roads in the port city of Karachi near the rally venue were jammed for more than ten hours, the news agency AFP reported, with the large turnout indicating Khan may no longer be confined to the political sidelines.

"Not only has Imran's status as a rising star in politics been cemented, his PTI will also be a force to reckon with in the coming days," Pakistan’s biggest English language newspaper, The News International, said in an editorial Monday.

"What we are seeing is a trend of growing support for Imran and his party," it added, although it also questioned some of Khan's ambitious promises such a pledge to end all corruption within 90 days.

"We need a government that changes the system and ends corruption, so we need the PTI to come to power," Khan told the crowd. "The first thing we need to do is end corruption."

"It's time for a change and only PTI and Imran Khan can bring about that change," said Sabina Saifi, 28, a school teacher. She was wearing a PTI cap and had come with her two brothers.

Pakistan news website Dawn said: "Emotions ran high among the participants, including old citizens and those arriving at the venue on wheelchairs, eager to see and hear Imran Khan, who is now recognized as a force to be reckoned with after his successful shows of political prowess in different parts of the country."

Relations between Pakistan and the the United States have reached a crisis point because of a Nov 26 cross-border incident in which NATO aircraft killed 24 Pakistani troops. Pakistan has since shut down NATO supply routes into Afghanistan and demanded an apology.

Khan says that, if elected prime minister, he would end cooperation in the fight against militants based in tribal areas, end the covert campaign of bombings by U.S. drones and refuse all U.S. aid, which totals some $20 billion since 2001.

However, the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, Cameron Munter, however, said in November that he didn't see Khan as anti-American.

"Imran Khan is, as far as he tells me, for the same kind of values that we think are important," Munter said on a popular talk show on November 22. "He says he's for democracy, he's for governance that's clean, he's for economic growth. We're all for those things."