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Pakistani cricket star is election wildcard

Sunday - 3/24/2013, 2:46am  ET

A woman supporter of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, or the Movement for Justice, makes victory sign while shouts slogans at a rally in Lahore, Pakistan on Saturday, March 23, 2013. Pakistani cricket legend-turned politician Imran Khan rallied around 100,000 flag-waving supporters in the eastern city of Lahore on Saturday ahead of a historic national election later this spring.(AP Photo/K.M Chaudary)

Associated Press

LAHORE, Pakistan (AP) -- As Pakistan looks ahead to a national election later this spring, the biggest wildcard is shaping up to be cricket legend Imran Khan, who rallied at least 150,000 flag-waving supporters in the eastern city of Lahore on Saturday.

After years of trying to gain a foothold in Pakistani politics, the shaggy-haired, ruggedly good-looking 60-year-old has finally elbowed his way into the big league. Casting himself as a populist anti-corruption crusader, he is seen as a threat to the two parties that have long dominated elections.

Khan has almost mythical status in cricket-crazy Pakistan. He was the captain of the national team that won the 1992 World Cup -- the only time the country has claimed the sport's highest prize -- and polls show he's the nation's most popular politician by a wide margin.

But it's uncertain how effective he will be in converting his personal appeal into votes for his party when Pakistan holds parliamentary elections on May 11 -- the first transition between democratically elected governments in a country that has experienced three military coups.

Much of Khan's support has come from young, middle-class Pakistanis in the country's major cities, a potentially influential group. Almost half of Pakistan's more than 80 million registered voters are under the age of 35, but the key question is whether Khan can get his young supporters to show up at the polling booth.

"This is going to swing the election," Khan told The Associated Press in an interview before the rally. "The youth is standing with us and change."

Khan, one of the few Pakistani politicians with a squeaky-clean image, broke into the political mainstream in the past 18 months with a message that capitalizes on widespread discontent with the country's traditional politicians. Some are seen as being more interested in lining their pockets than dealing with pressing problems facing Pakistan, such as stuttering economic growth, pervasive energy shortages and deadly attacks by Islamist militants.

On foreign policy, he has struck a chord by criticizing Pakistan's unpopular alliance with the United States and controversial American drone attacks targeting al-Qaida and Taliban militants in the country's northwest tribal region. He also believes the Pakistani army should pull out of the tribal region, where it is fighting a domestic Taliban insurgency, and resolve the conflict through negotiations.

A suicide attack in the North Waziristan tribal area Saturday killed five soldiers, the army said.

Khan's message has helped him rally huge crowds in Pakistan's major cities. Some people estimated that up to 200,000 people packed into the park in downtown Lahore on Saturday, despite periods of lighting and driving rain. Lahore is the capital of Punjab, the country's most populous province and the main battleground in determining which party wins enough seats in the National Assembly to form the next government.

"We want to clean up corruption. We want justice. We want electricity, and only Imran Khan can do it," said Mohammed Wasim, a 21-year-old student from Lahore and one of many first-time voters attending the rally near the country's towering national monument, the Minar-e-Pakistan.

Many of the people at the rally were middle-class youths like Wasim who danced to music blaring over loudspeakers and waved the red, white and green flag of Khan's party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, or the Movement for Justice. But plenty of older Pakistanis, some of whom had switched from other parties out of frustration, also turned up.

Khan hopes the momentum from the rally will push forward what he calls his political "tsunami" and help his party win a majority of the 272 National Assembly seats that are up for election. That would allow Khan to form the next government and position him to become prime minister.

He is up against the two groups that have dominated the country's politics for decades, the Pakistan People's Party, which led the most recent government, and the main opposition party, the Pakistan Muslim League-N. Both have broad alliances with local leaders who use political patronage, such as government jobs and contracts, to shore up support.

"The reason why we are in politics is to break the stranglehold of these two parties who have plundered this country," Khan told the AP.

Many analysts are less bullish and believe Khan's party will win 20-40 seats. They predict the PML-N, which is led by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, will lead the polls and Khan's party will come in third behind the recently ruling People's Party. The conventional wisdom is that no party will win a majority of the seats, and Sharif's PML-N will end up having to put together a weak coalition government.

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