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Imran rising?

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19 December 2011 11:32

Even by Pakistan's chaotic standards, it has been a ridiculously frenetic few weeks.

The tumble of events has included a NATO air-strike killing 24 Pakistani soldiers on the porous border with Afghanistan; rumours that President Asif Ali Zardari was about to resign, after heading to Dubai to have treatment for a heart condition; the 'memogate' scandal, in which a leaked document allegedly showed that civilian officials had sought US assistance in heading off a suspected military coup; the BBC taken off air for broadcasting what was deemed to be an anti-Pakistan documentary, which claimed that Islamabad was secretly training the Taliban in Afghanistan; and even a row over the actress, Veena Malik, whose curvaceous image appeared on the cover of an Indian lads mag, naked and with the initials 'ISI' tattooed on her arm.

Possibly playing her own double game, the actress claimed the photo was digitally altered, an accusation rejected by the magazine, FHM India. Lending the story even more of an 'only in Pakistan' feel, her ex-boyfriend, the Pakistani cricketer, Mohammad Asif, was jailed last month for his role in the match-fixing scandal.

Easy to miss, then, was what is set to become one of the big Pakistani stories of 2012, the rise of the cricketer-turned-politician, Imran Khan. First, there was the buzz surrounding the release of his autobiography in August, which included a veiled but unmistakable dig at the Pakistani military. 'We have no other choice in order to survive,' wrote Imran, 'we have to make Pakistan a genuine democracy.'

Then in late-October came a rally in Lahore, his home town, where he attracted over 100,000 supporters in what was one of the biggest political rallies the country has ever seen. With parliamentary elections possibly occurring in the second half of next year, the country's World Cup-winning captain claims his party, the Pakistan Movement for Justice, or PTI, could be swept to power by a 'tsunami of support.'

Imran says the country has reached 'rock bottom' and that there is a real yearning for a 'New Pakistan', free of corruption and out of the grip of the old parties, Zardari's Pakistan People's Party and Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League. Heavily represented at his rallies have been the tech-savvy urban young, a demographic that personifies his message of change.

Up until now, his Movement for Justice has been shambolic, and unable to leverage Imran's personal magnetism into significant political power. Founded fifteen years ago, PTI has so far won just one parliamentary seat. By happenstance, I covered the 1997 election, when Imran launched his first campaign, and like most of the fly-in correspondents arrived hoping to write the story of how a one-time cricketing playboy, with a Jewish heiress wife, became the prime minister of the world's second most populous Muslim nation in one giant leap.

Alas, Imran's campaign was so thoroughly disorganised that his party had not even arranged for him to vote on election day, a political golden duck. There were shades of that sloppiness at the rally in Lahore, where Imran's speech was relayed to the crowd through a malfunctioning public address system.

Some commentators predict that Imran's main contribution to the election will be to siphon votes from Nawaz Sharif's nationalistic Pakistan Muslim League, which could enable Zardari's PPP to consolidate its power. However, Imran has been the prime Pakistani beneficiary of 2011's twin themes of protest and economic uncertainty, and next year is likely to bring even more instability. With unemployment expected to rise and the country facing a balance of payments crisis, his message of economic change is likely to resonate even more in 2012, faulty microphone or not.

With bat and ball, Imran was always one of cricket's great game changers. Is he about to have the same transformative effect on the politics of his beloved country?

Photo courtesy of the World Economic Forum.

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