LAHORE, Pakistan — As Pakistan looks ahead to a national election later this spring, the biggest wild card is shaping up to be cricket legend Imran Khan, who rallied at least 150,000 flag-waving supporters in the eastern city of Lahore on Saturday.
After years of trying to gain a foothold in Pakistani politics, the shaggy-haired, ruggedly good-looking 60-year-old has finally elbowed his way into the big league. Casting himself as a populist anti-corruption crusader, he is seen as a threat to the two parties that have long dominated elections.
Khan has almost mythical status in cricket-crazy Pakistan. He was 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 show he is 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 when Pakistan holds parliamentary elections on May 11 — the first transition between democratically elected governments in a country that has experienced three military coups.
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 younger than 35, but the key question is whether Khan can get his young supporters to show up at the polling booth.
“This is going to swing the election,” Khan said 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 past 18 months with a message that capitalizes on widespread discontent with the country’s traditional politicians. Some are seen as being more interested in lining their pockets than dealing with the pressing problems facing Pakistan, such as stuttering economic growth, pervasive energy shortages and deadly attacks by Islamist militants.
On foreign policy, he has struck a chord by criticizing Pakistan’s unpopular alliance with the United States and controversial American drone attacks targeting al-Qaeda and Taliban militants in the country’s northwestern tribal region.
Khan’s message has helped him rally huge crowds in Pakistan’s major cities. Some people estimated that as many as 200,000 people packed into the park in downtown Lahore on Saturday, despite periods of lightning and driving rain. Lahore is the capital of Punjab, the country’s most populous province and the main battleground in determining which party wins enough seats in the National Assembly to form the 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.
Khan hopes the momentum from the rally will help his party win a majority of the 272 National Assembly seats that are up for election. That would allow him to form the next government and position him to become prime minister.