“I never took him seriously as a politician before,” said Mohammad Shajar Abbas, 29, a used-clothing salesman who pointed the other night to the spot where he saw Khan’s speech on Oct. 30. “Now, even my family will vote for Imran Khan.”
The fresh buzz is no guarantee for Khan, who, although long admired for his philanthropy and athletic prowess, was a political also-ran for 15 years.
Despite daily political drama and occasional historic upheavals here, the foundation of Pakistani politics is made of three leaden blocks: the army, which has ruled for half the nation’s existence; the Sharif-led faction of the Pakistan Muslim League; and the Bhutto family’s ruling Pakistan People’s Party, now headed by President Asif Ali Zardari, the widower of the late leader Benazir Bhutto.
But Khan’s recent rise points to a changing Pakistan. Its cities are growing, its youth population is bulging, and its media outlets — which play to Khan’s charisma and good looks — have proliferated. Familiar politicians are widely regarded as buffoonish and corrupt. Zardari’s government is seen as ineffective and a pawn of the United States, points that Khan has emphasized. Political loyalties are shifting, analysts say, particularly among urban, middle-class young people.
“The two leading parties have bulk and the dead hand of tradition on their side,” Ayaz Amir, a prominent commentator and lawmaker from Sharif’s party, wrote after Khan’s rally. “Bereft of ideas they always were. Now they seem drained of relevance and purpose.”
No one thinks Khan’s party, Tehreek-e-Insaf, can sweep national elections scheduled for 2013, but it might win significantly more parliamentary seats than it previously held. Still, enthusiasm is rippling, and not just among young people, who do not typically vote in large numbers. Women, a rare sight at Pakistani political rallies, attended Khan’s. So did “a fair sprinkling of beards,” Amir wrote, referring to religious Muslims. One veteran police officer in Lahore — who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he is barred from political activity — called the gathering “mind-blowing” and said he had since converted 150 friends to Khan’s side.
So far, Khan’s main draw is that he is different, largely because his record is clean. Backers say that can keep him free of control by the powerful military, though he is seen as close to it.