London: Former Pakistan cricket captain Imran Khan has emerged as his country’s most popular politician, but he has as many enemies as he has friends.
Khan, who currently lives in a spacious hacienda-style property outside Islamabad, is confident about winning the next general elections.
"We`ll win the next election. There`s going to be a very strong movement behind us. I can already sense it." With the prospect of elections as soon as April, he is already busy courting votes. Indeed, his "’overthrow the government, save the country’ campaign is agitating for a snap poll,” the Independent quoted Khan, as saying in characteristically self-assured tone.
The optimism, he says, is not misplaced. Last month, a Pew survey showed 68 percent of people view Khan favourably – five points ahead of his closest rival.
In the industrial town of Faisalabad last month, Khan drew a mostly young crowd of some 35,000 people. The voters he`s targeting are under 30, in a country where the median age is just 21.
At a recent Islamabad protest, two-toned heels clattered alongside young men`s trainers.
"The women are watching political talk shows now," says Khan, a regular guest on cable news channels, "they’re more popular than soap operas."
Columnist Ayesha Tammy Haq calls it the "weak in the knees club". If Imran Khan capitalises on that, she adds, he could get half the vote.
There is a craving for change, Khan says. "Everywhere I went, people stopped me and said, `Imran sahib, you have to save the country’."
From the comfort of opposition, Khan rouses his crowds with angry talk of the incumbents` failure. Faced with bleak prospects, some young voters are attracted to promises to revive the economy. And in a fiercely anti-American climate, Imran Khan`s nationalist pique soothes widely held feelings of wounded pride.
Yousaf Salahuddin, a childhood friend, says that is Khan’s appeal. "It`s still like colonial times. Our politicians believe our success lies in bowing to the Americans," he says.
"Imran is different. He’s not against America or Americans, but he certainly wants his country to have some sense of sovereignty or independence."
Khan also hopes to harden popular perceptions of the political class as inept, distant and venal.
"This isn’t a democracy, it’s a kleptocracy," he alleges, indignantly.
President Asif Ali Zardari and former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, he alleges, represent the status quo.
"These people are the same. Neither pays tax, their interests are outside, they don`t want tax reforms, they don`t want justice, they don`t want the rule of law."