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.
"I think third place is the safest bet for Khan's party, but if he could gain second, which is not impossible, it would be a big political revolution for the country," said Rasul Baksh Rais, a political science professor at Lahore University of Management Sciences.
A breakout performance by Khan's party could spell trouble for the PML-N because both parties appeal to urban, middle-class voters in Punjab. Some analysts predict that if Khan's candidates can steal away enough votes from Sharif's party, they could swing the balance in favor of the People's Party and allow it to once again form the next government. The People's Party's largest area of support is outside Punjab, in southern Sindh province, where Khan has less backing.
Senator Tariq Azim Khan, who runs the PML-N's media operations, acknowledged Khan's potential role as a "spoiler," but claimed his party's lead is so great after five years of "misrule" by the People's Party that it's unbeatable. He also painted Khan as someone who doesn't have the experience to handle the country's problems.
"He might have good intentions, but winning a cricket World Cup does not make you a good prime minister," said the senator.
The former cricketer was known in his youth as a womanizing playboy who spent time hobnobbing with socialites in London and partying in the city's nightclubs, but later turned to religion and politics. He built a successful cancer hospital that treats patients for free.
Khan founded his political party over 15 years ago but struggled to make inroads until October 2011, when he held a rally in Lahore with more than 100,000 people that proved he was a real political force.
He risked losing support during the past year when he was criticized for opening his party up to traditional politicians who could deliver votes but clashed with promises to change Pakistan's corrupt political system. He said he addressed that criticism by holding the first intra-party elections in the country's history, so members can recommend who runs on the party's ticket.
One of the main reasons for the weekend rally in Lahore was to take an oath from the 80,000 newly elected party workers.
Associated Press writer Zaheer Babar contributed to this report.