Pakistan’s Imran Khan embarks on final election rallies

Former cricketer is neck-and-neck with main opponent Shehbaz Sharif ahead of Wednesday poll

Imran Khan,  leader of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party, addresses his supporters during an election campaign in Lahore, on  Monday. Photograph: KM Chaudary/AP

Imran Khan, leader of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party, addresses his supporters during an election campaign in Lahore, on Monday. Photograph: KM Chaudary/AP


Imran Khan has embarked on a last-ditch series of election campaign rallies around Pakistan, with the former cricket star within striking distance of winning power with a pledge to clean up endemic corruption in the country.

As polls predict that Mr Khan is neck-and-neck with his lead opponent ahead of Wednesday’s vote, the charismatic political outsider in Pakistan has his best chance of becoming prime minister and upsetting the long-term grip of the Sharif and Bhutto families.

“We will change Pakistan – we will end corruption,” Mr Khan told cheering crowds at a rally at the weekend, one of several held across Punjab, the country’s biggest province, on the same night.

More than 20 years after Mr Khan founded his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party, his anti-corruption message has struck a note with young urban voters in this election, while people from rural areas have been attracted to his socially conservative views on issues such as the country’s strict blasphemy laws.

Huma Baqai, a professor of international relations at Karachi university, said: “Everybody once thought his anti-corruption slogan would not take off, but it has.”

Mr Khan, known internationally for guiding the Pakistan cricket team to the 1992 World Cup victory, last stood for election in 2013 when he attracted huge rallies around the country. Then, however, he lost out to Nawaz Sharif, coming a distant third.

This time, Mr Khan is facing the brother of his former opponent – Shehbaz Sharif. This follows the jailing of Nawaz Sharif after a corruption case brought by Mr Khan.

Mr Khan said in an interview he had a more experienced slate of candidates this time than in 2013. “Eighty per cent of our candidates [last time] were first timers,” he said. “We really went with a very amateur team, unprepared against a very professional set-up.”

He added: “Last time we were not prepared. Now we are prepared.”

Mr Khan has also won support by promising to set up a “Muslim welfare state”, boosting healthcare and education. “We need to fix state institutions so we can provide good governance,” he said. “Good governance is really the difference between a poor country and a rich country.”

Zain Amjed, a 28-year-old resident of Lahore who works for Zameen, an online estate agent, said: “We are fed up with the old families that have been taking it in turn. It is time for change and he is the only one who can bring it.”

Coalition negotiations

Analysts added that Mr Khan’s willingness to do deals with powerful local clan leaders has helped build a stronger support base.

Polls suggest the two candidates are roughly tied, with neither holding enough support to be able to form a government alone. If they are correct, Wednesday’s vote will be followed by days of coalition negotiations with smaller parties, likely to include some hardline Islamists.

The vote has been marred by allegations of attempted vote-rigging. Mr Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) accuses the army of backing Mr Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), following years of clashes between senior generals and Nawaz Sharif on issues such as the economy and relations with India. Both the army and PTI deny this.

The PML-N has claimed the elections have been undermined by widespread manipulation, while some in the party say the army orchestrated Mr Sharif’s corruption conviction. The army has denied interfering in either Mr Sharif’s case or the election.

On Saturday, a senior judge accused the military intelligence services, known as Inter-Services Intelligence, of trying to manipulate the judiciary, which has been hearing cases of electoral malpractice since the campaign began.

“The ISI is fully involved with manipulating judicial proceedings,” said Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui, a judge at the Islamabad high court. A PTI spokesperson said Mr Siddiqui’s comments showed he was “partial” towards the PML-N.

In Punjab, Mr Khan attacked observers and opposition candidates who have accused the army of trying to fix the vote in his favour. “The elections will not be rigged,” he said. “Rather those who rigged the elections will be wiped out in the coming polls.”

Shehbaz Sharif, meanwhile, spent the last weekend before the election campaigning both in Punjab, which he has governed as chief minister for the past 10 years, and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

Addressing a rally in Punjab on Saturday, he promised to end the country’s energy supply crisis, adding that he would make Pakistan the envy of its richer neighbour India. “[The Indians] will come to the Wagah border and call Pakistanis their masters,” he said. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018