Pakistani cricketer draws over 100,000 to rally

December 25, 2011 - 12:26 PM
Pakistan

Thousands of supporters of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf or or the Movement for Justice Party take part in a rally in Karachi, Pakistan on Sunday, Dec. 25, 2011. Tens of thousands of people have rallied in support of Pakistani cricket legend and opposition politician Imran Khan in the southern city of Karachi. Sunday's rally further cemented Khan's status as a rising force in Pakistani politics. (AP Photo/Shakil Adil)

KARACHI, Pakistan (AP) — More than 100,000 people rallied in support of Pakistani cricket legend and opposition politician Imran Khan in the southern city of Karachi on Sunday, further cementing his status as a rising force in politics.

His message of cracking down on corruption and standing up to the U.S. has found new resonance at a time when Pakistanis are fed up with the country's chronic insecurity and economic malaise.

"I promise all you people that we'll create a new and respectable Pakistan that will never beg to anyone if you bring us in power," Khan told the cheering crowd as they enthusiastically waved the green, red and white flag of his party.

The 59-year-old Khan entered politics 15 years ago when he founded Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, or the Movement for Justice Party, but has struggled to translate his fame into votes. His political fortunes shifted in October when he drew over 100,000 people to a rally in the eastern city of Lahore.

Since then, Khan has attracted many politicians to his party, including several prominent figures.

"I came to support an honest politician who quit his lavish life for the betterment of downtrodden people," said 29-year-old Afghan Waqar at Sunday's rally.

Waqar said it was the first rally she has ever attended, a sign of Khan's ability to attract potential new voters who had all but given up on Pakistan's political system, which is widely viewed as corrupt and unresponsive to the needs of average Pakistanis.

National elections are not scheduled until 2013, but Khan and other oppositions have been pressing the government to hold earlier polls. He has been holding large rallies to build momentum and draw politicians to his party.

Javed Odho, a senior police officer, estimated there were 100,000 to 150,000 people in the crowd. The event was held outside Khan's traditional support base in Punjab province, where Lahore is the capital. Karachi is Pakistan's largest city and is the capital of Sindh province.

Khan has been especially popular with the country's urban middle class youth, and many of the people at the rally were young Pakistanis wearing Western-style clothing.

Two prominent politicians who have joined Khan's party in recent months include former Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, who had a falling out with the governing Pakistan People's Party, and Javed Hashmi, who was a key member of the main opposition party, Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz.

Khan's rising popularity could be a concern for the U.S., given his harsh criticism of the Pakistani government's cooperation with Washington in the fight against Islamist militants.

He has been especially critical of U.S. drone strikes targeting militants in Pakistan and has argued that the country's alliance with Washington is the main reason Pakistan is facing a homegrown Taliban insurgency.

Despite Khan's rising popularity, it's unclear how much he can shake up the political scene in the 2013 elections. Both the PPP and the PML-N have strongly entrenched bases of support that will be difficult to challenge.

It's also unclear exactly what Khan would do if he did win significant political power. He has yet to offer many specifics about how he would fix problems like corruption.

Khan claimed his mass mobilization campaign would bring a "tsunami that would destroy injustice and cooperation."