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Pakistan’s Youth Drawn to Ex-Cricketer Politician

BY Noreen Nasir  February 10, 2012 at 12:06 PM EDT

Imran Khan addressing supporters in Peshawar on Nov. 25. Photo by A. Majeed/AFP/Getty Images

Pakistan is embroiled in yet another round of political controversies, but a glamorous cricket star with an anti-corruption and anti-American message is attracting attention and some support among the country’s youth, who have been turned off by the constant feuding among the traditional parties.

Hundreds of thousands have shown up at rallies for Imran Khan, head of the newly formed Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (Pakistan Movement for Justice) party. He has been promising a return to a more transparent government and to rid the country of corruption.

In January, Pakistan’s Supreme Court began contempt proceedings against Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani for allegedly failing to pursue a corruption case against President Asif Ali Zardari.

The ruling Pakistan People’s Party also is facing a court challenge over a secret memorandum allegedly drafted by Pakistan’s former ambassador to the United States, Hussain Haqqani, asking the United States for help with a possible military coup.

With the controversies, there is more talk of possibly holding early elections, now tentatively scheduled for March 2013. Young people would comprise a big part of the electorate — those under age 25 are estimated at 63 percent of the 187 million population, according to the United Nations Population Fund.

Kalsoom Lakhani, CEO and founder of Invest2Innovate — a Washington, D.C.-based organization focused on social entrepreneurship in Pakistan — works with the country’s youth. She said the sense of frustration over the political scene is leading to a desire for change.

A YouGov-Cambridge survey of 1,000 Pakistanis conducted last year showed most would vote for Khan’s party and thought it was the most likely to eradicate corruption and tackle foreign policy problems.

Arif Rafiq, editor of The Pakistan Policy blog, who has been following Khan’s party’s campaign closely, said the upper middle class in Pakistan has previously preferred military dictatorships over civilian government to bring order and calm in the country. But that seems to be changing, he said.

“People tended to side toward the army in the past,” Rafiq said. “Now they see Imran Khan as a replacement.”

Khan, who tweets regularly, represents a symbol of patriotism and change, said Lakhani.

“People are very optimistic right now, especially about Imran,” she said. “He comes across as young and hip and very much ‘with it.’ And he understands what Pakistan needs right now.”

Khan also isn’t afraid to criticize Pakistan for its dependent relationship with the United States and is highly critical of the U.S. role in the nation and the war on terror.

“He’s appealing to the middle class and the upper middle class, who have anti-politician sentiments, anti-U.S. sentiments and are very critical of the status quo,” said Rafiq. “He is their anti-politician politician.”

But not everyone is optimistic about Khan’s “tsunami,” as he promises, to sweep away all that’s wrong with Pakistani politics. His critics, who remain loyal to parties that have maintained power in the past, often call him arrogant and naïve, with an unrealistic approach to solving the corruption crisis in the country. Some also see him as too right-wing, and criticize him for being too conservative and anti-American.

Moeed Yusuf, South Asia adviser at the U.S. Institute of Peace, said Khan’s main opposition lies in those who want to preserve things the way they are — namely politicians who currently have power and rank, and those who depend on the patronage network on which Pakistan has traditionally operated.

Yusuf said that despite Khan’s popularity, his party is not likely to sweep elections next year because people in Pakistan generally vote based on their perception of who has a better chance of winning.

“Supporting and voting in Pakistan never go together,” he said. “If people don’t think [Imran Khan] will win, they won’t waste their vote on him.”

Lakhani agrees, and said that Khan’s support among the middle class youth, who are generating the supportive buzz in social media, may also not translate into votes, because many have traditionally been non-voters. She said those who do show up at the polls are people who face direct impact of the energy and gas shortage in the country.

“The people that vote at the end of the day are the ones whose energy gets cut if they don’t vote for the right politician,” she said. “The people that vote are people like my driver, who are worried about the prices of sugar and electricity.”

Khan’s party’s success at the polls is yet to be seen, but most analysts agree he is stoking a sense of nationalism in the country.

“The biggest service that Imran Khan’s party has done to Pakistan is that it has transformed this narrative of despondence into a narrative of some hope,” Yusuf said.

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