Cricket legend campaigns for political change in Pakistan

Islamabad – In a park in eastern Pakistan, tens of thousands of men and women chanted for political change, heated by revolutionary songs from popular rock stars and a fiery speech by former cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan.

The more than 100,000 people gathered Sunday in the Minar-e-Pakistan ground in Lahore showed the public’s disenchantment with the political routine in which corrupt politicians alternate with all-too-similar military dictators.

The rally drew people from all classes, including taxi drivers and labourers, as well as more wealthy people sporting jeans and T-shirts, to listen to the talk of change.

Maintaining his image as a political outsider, Khan has called for more accountability for all those politicians and military rulers involved in the rampant corruption that much of the public blames for their economic misery.

At the rally in Lahore on Sunday, Khan warned the leaders of the ruling Pakistan People’s Party and major opposition group Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N) to declare their real assets or face a civil disobedience movement.

‘This is not a flood; this is a tsunami. Anyone against it will be swept away,’ Khan said of his audience, drawn from around the country.

Khan is not a new face on the political scene. He has been around since 1997 when he launched his own Pakistan Justice Movement Party, five years after winning the country’s only Cricket World Cup title.

That win still brings a rare sense of pride for his countrymen who are currently demoralized because the world identifies their land as the home of terrorism and also because they are left behind by their archrival India in terms of progress and prosperity.

But Khan had to wait and maintain a clean reputation for around one-and-a-half decades for the notoriety of his earlier lifestyle to fade.

He waited until people exhausted all other options in the form of the 11-year military regime of Pervez Musharraf, who vowed to bring back the money allegedly looted by politicians and put in Swiss accounts, and the leadership of two main political parties that promised that a restoration of democracy would correct every wrong.

‘We have tried everyone, whether it is (President Asif Ali) Zardari or (PML-N leader) Nawaz Sharif. They all are the same and one,’ said Maha Ali, a 22-year-old student. ‘They have given us nothing but inflation, power and gas load shedding, and unemployment. People are committing suicide because they are unable to feed their children’

In the Corruption Perceptions Index Pakistan went from being the 42nd most corrupt country in 2009 to 34th among 178 countries in 2010.

According to Shahid Hassan Siddiqui, head of the independent Research Institute of Islamic Banking and Finance, the country loses around 1.2 trillion rupees (13.79 billion dollars) annually in corruption and several billion dollars more in tax evasion.

Besides, the public is wearying of the alliance with the United States in the fight against terrorism that has cost Pakistan 64 billion dollars in military operations and from terror attacks, according to government figures.

Resentment is also growing over US demands to do more against militants using Pakistani soil to launch attacks into Afghanistan.

‘My message to America is that we will have friendship with you, but we will not accept any slavery,’ the clean-shaven Khan, dressed in national dress, said as the crowd chanted anti-US slogans.

‘We will help you in a respectable withdrawal of your troops from Afghanistan, but we will not launch a military operation in Pakistan for you.’

‘Imran Khan represents the urge for a real political change in Pakistan and people have started to look at him as a saviour,’ said Rasool Bux Raees, a political scientist at Lahore University of Management Sciences.

‘But we still have to see if he is able to devise a political language that goes beyond mere criticism to the solution of the problems the country is facing today,’ Bux said.