Imran Khan at an election rally in Murree, around 60km from Islamabad, last week. (AFP)
Around a quarter to midnight in Lahore’s Moon Market, Pakistan’s most famous cricketing hero is in an armoured jeep trapped in a sea of young men, desperate to get near him, faces pressed against the glass, shouting “Captain, I love you!” and waving green and red party flags or cricket bat symbols.
Pakistan may be one of the most cricket-obsessed nations on earth, but no one is there because of Imran Khan’s cricketing skills.
Most look too young to remember him captaining Pakistan to its only cricket World Cup victory in 1992. Instead they hope he will lead them to a very different victory: becoming Prime Minister after Saturday’s elections.
“This is a revolution!” he declares, as we stare out at the crush of people. “Look at them! They are fed up with the status quo. This is an across-the-board desire for change and a fear the country won’t survive unless we do. It’s middle classes, young people, people who have never voted before, exactly like what happened in the Arab world. We are going to sweep this election.”
Amid the exhilaration, there is also fear. The elections are historic — it will be the first time in Pakistan one elected government will hand power to another rather than be ousted by a military dictator — but also the most violent in the country’s history.
Taliban bombs and shootings have killed 76 people in the past two weeks, forcing many candidates to campaign behind bullet-proof glass far from the crowds; some remotely by Skype; or not at all in the case of Bilawal Bhutto, whose mother Benazir was assassinated five years ago.
Imran, standing as “a man of the people”, will have none of this. Earlier in the day in a dusty field in the far-flung rural district of Narowal, in the northeast of Punjab, where people had left muddy villages and piled on tractors to hear him speak, I watched him exhort supporters to break police barricades and run forward to the rickety stage.
The X-ray machine the crowds had walked through was of no comfort — it was not plugged in. Police hurriedly wheeled in a mobile phone-jammer that nobody could work.
Now we are stuck in a car in a narrow street in a bazaar where three years ago 50 people were killed in a suicide attack. There were no security checks getting into his rally even though Imran says security forces are on “red alert”.
Any of the men surrounding the car could be a suicide bomber. The black T-shirted Punjab commandos with “No Fear” printed reassuringly on their backs and AK-47s at the ready are nowhere to be seen. Our only protection is police with wooden sticks.
“There’s no security,” says Imran, shaking his head with horror as he watches the police whack his supporters. “We’re all high-risk targets right now.”
Finally we move, surrounded by flashing police lights and supporters on motorbikes. Imran’s chief of staff — who used to be his bank manager in London — hands round cheeseburgers and Cokes. “Campaigning — no food, no sleep and hardest of all, no time to pee,” Imran says.
Moon Market, where he was forklifted onto a stage of shipping containers covered with carpets amid pounding music and cries of “Imran”, was his eighth jalsa — or rally — of the day.
Although still rakishly handsome at 60, he looks exhausted. Since the campaign was launched three weeks ago, he has campaigned 15 hours every day, criss-crossing the vast country in a rented helicopter as he belts out speeches demanding an end to “status quo politics”.
“It’s my cricket training which is helping,” he says. Yet the last thing he expected was it to be used in such a cause. “I couldn’t even make a speech to my team when I became captain, I was so shy,” he laughs.
It is an incredible turnaround. Although Imran has been revered both at home and abroad for his cricketing skills, his political ambitions have long been treated with derision: since he founded his party 17 years ago, it has held only one seat in the parliament. The popular Friday Times newspaper runs a cartoon lampooning him as “Im the Dim”.
Today his crusade against corruption and dynastic politics has clearly struck a chord, making him by far the most popular politician in Pakistan. His Movement for Justice is turning Pakistan’s politics upside down.
But he is up against the formidable political machine of Nawaz Sharif, who was twice Prime Minister in the 1990s.
Many wonder if the mercurial former cricketer is really the best person to lead this nuclear-armed country.
I first met Imran in the late 1980s when I was living in Pakistan. The Oxford graduate turned cricket star was the country’s most eligible bachelor who every society hostess in Lahore tried to get to their parties, as well as being a fixture on the London nightclub scene.
It was hard to take seriously the idea of him running a political movement, particularly in Pakistan’s entrenched system where many seats are won by feudal lords, whatever party they run for. His own background was hardly ideal, having fathered an illegitimate daughter with the late Sita White, daughter of billionaire Lord White.
Things started to change after the attacks in America on September 11, 2001, when he was a lone voice criticising Pakistan’s cooperation with the US — even if the West may question how committed that cooperation was.
A Pashtun, he has become an outspoken critic of drone attacks, arguing that civilian casualties are stoking such resentment that they are driving people to join the Taliban. “The road to peace is to get the tribals on your side,” he argues. “Keep bombing them and you push them towards the terrorists.”
Such comments have led him to be seen as anti-West and known as Taliban Khan, labels he angrily rejects. “If you don’t bow to every western politician you should not be termed anti-West,” he says. “I want us to be a sovereign nation, not slaves.”
He turns the argument that Pakistan is not doing enough to end havens for terrorists back on the West.
“I would ask western countries like the UK to stop allowing money plundered by Third World dictators and politicians to be put in safe havens. It kills more people than terrorists or drugs,” he says. “In Pakistan, 200,000 children die from waterborne diseases... because these guys have siphoned all the money so there is none for health and education.”
It is widespread disillusion over such misgovernance that is making him so popular. Pakistan’s merry-go-round between military rule and the same corrupt politicians who have looted the country has left it bankrupt. In the past five years under President Asif Ali Zardari, the country has gone backwards with power cuts of 16 hours a day in Lahore, widespread unemployment, and 25 million children not in school. Polio is still endemic.
So great is the frustration that during the Arab spring, Twitter was full of tweets from Pakistanis asking: “When are we going to rise up?”
At Imran’s rally in Narowal, villagers say they are fed up with being neglected. “We have electricity just two hours a day and no gas to cook with as the rich use it for their cars,” said Abdul Reham, a student. “Imran is our last hope.”
It is young people such as Reham that Imran is banking on to sweep him to power. Some 70 per cent of the population is under 35, and 38 million of its 85 million voters will vote for the first time in these elections.
His appeal is not just to youth. Many women support him. Three of his sisters are out knocking on doors as are many Lahori socialites. One group sat with their husbands smoking fat Cohibas outside a coffee bar in Lahore. “We need to help the downtrodden,” said one. “Our servants are getting angry.”
Some American Pakistanis have come over to vote for the first time, too — among them Tahir Effendi, a doctor from New York.
“I’m seeing the same energy here as with Obama in 2008,” he said. “It’s ‘Yes we Khan’ instead of ‘Yes we can’.”
Imran is popular, too, with Pakistan’s powerful army, which says it is fed up with cleaning up the mess of the old politicians. The army genuinely seems to be keeping out of the elections, leaving some Pakistanis confused.
“This is the first time we don’t know who’s supposed to win,” said Shahid Masood, a TV news anchor.
There are numerous other groups, including some extremists and a new party of A.Q. Khan, the godfather of Pakistan’s nuclear bomb, even though he is supposedly under house arrest for running a nuclear black-market to everywhere from Iran to North Korea. His symbol is a missile.
Yet, even Imran’s most committed supporters doubt the enthusiasm he generates will be enough to make his the largest party — let alone give him a majority.
The hurdle is Pakistan’s constituency system in which candidates rather than parties matter — something Imran has vowed to end since it leads to corruption, even though he has brought in some of “the electables” into his own party.
He has also persuaded new people to stand, including Abrar ul-Haq, one of Pakistan’s most famous rock stars, who has ditched his usual jeans and T-shirt for a traditional starched white cotton salwar and black waistcoat and is standing in Narowal.
Out on the stump with Sharif, it is easy to see what Imran is up against. Flying between rallies in southern Punjab in a private jet that has previously flown Beyonce and George Clooney and is stocked with yogurt drinks and Perrier, Sharif is statesmanlike and quietly confident.
He admits Imran is his main rival in the cities though says in rural areas the contest is still with his old-time foes, the Pakistan People’s Party of Benazir Bhutto and now headed by her widower Asif Zardari and son Bilawal.
“Imran knows nothing except cricket,” he shrugs. “And he is abusive, too — he says he’ll beat me with a bat. That’s not nice.”
In stark contrast to the seat-of-the-pants feel of Imran’s campaign, everything around Sharif is highly organised.
Security is tight — mobile phones are jammed. Before every stop, he is given a folder with speaking points. But he has done this for years. “I love campaigning,” Sharif says.
The former industrialist entered politics in the 1980s as a protege of Pakistan’s military dictator General Zia ul-Haq but has been toughened by a period of jail and exile under Pervez Musharraf.
He allows himself a smile when I ask how he feels about Musharraf being placed under house arrest after returning to Pakistan from London last month. “It’s exactly what he did to me,” he says.
Imran’s chances of success depend on the voter turnout, which is historically low, about 40 per cent, even in cities. “If he can take that above 50 per cent and mobilise lots of new voters, then we will surely see him getting lots of seats,” says Raza Rumi, a political analyst.
Estimates give Imran at most 40 of the 272 seats, which would leave him as kingmaker, the two main parties needing his support for a coalition. Imran insists he will do no such thing. “We’d rather sit in Opposition,” he says.
First, though, Pakistan has to get through the elections safely. The only time Imran loses his enthusiasm and looks down is when I ask what his two teenage sons back in London think about all this.
He told them the next time they saw him he would be Prime Minister. But in the meantime, he admits, the elder boy asked him to stop. “They are very anxious,” he says. “They are old enough to read the papers and see all the bombs.”
THE SUNDAY TIMES, LONDON