RAWALPINDI // "He's a man I can trust," said Shakeel Anjum, a 22-year-old college student. "We have tried everybody else so now I believe we should try him." Maliha Khawaja, 24, a housewife, agreed. "I believe he isn't corrupt. He doesn't seem to be the kind of person who will steal from the country's treasury."
The man they were speaking about was Imran Khan, the cricketer-turned politician, who is slowly but surely capturing the imagination and trust of Pakistan's youth. Last week, as Mr Khan, the president of Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (Movement for Justice) party, took to the rostrum to support a candidate in a local election, youngsters like Mr Anjum and Mrs Khawaja watched admiringly. "Thieves and dacoits have always been afraid of the courts, but now ordinary people are becoming fearful of the courts," said Mr Khan, dressed in a traditional shalwar kameez and speaking passionately with the elaborate hand gestures that have become his trademark.
"We were with the courts in the past, we are with the courts today, and we will remain with the courts." After a dramatic pause and slight applause, he continued. "Democracy will always be as strong as the courts will make it." After more than 13 years of avoiding or boycotting elections, the charismatic former Pakistani cricket captain was this week back in the thick of things, delivering fiery speeches on behalf of his party's candidate for an election in Rawalpindi, the headquarters of the country's military.
While Ijaz Khan Jazi, the Tehrik-e-Insaf candidate, lost in Wednesday's poll, it was Mr Khan who thousands had turned out to see. Mr Jazi had faced off against two political stalwarts including Sheikh Rasheed, president of the Awami Muslim League, and Shakil Awan, from Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League, who eventually won the vote. "That's the irony of the great Khan," said Asadullah Khan Ghalib, a political analyst. "He speaks well, no one doubts his integrity, he is very popular, but he has not been able to turn any of these attributes into votes for his party."
But that may be changing. The disillusionment of the youth with the current government has presented Mr Khan with an opportunity to push his party's campaign for social justice and equality. He speaks out against the military operations in the tribal regions, the country's kowtowing to rival India and the failure of the government's economic policies. He has also offered to mediate between the Pakistani Taliban and the government, because, he said, he was seen not as an "American stooge" but as an independent.
"The current times are a great opportunity for PTI," said Fauzia Kasuri, the president of the party's women's wing. "Things have never been as bad in Pakistan as they are today. Our message of equal rights and social economic justice has never resonated with Pakistanis the way it does today." As a sign of increasing support for the PTI, Ms Kasuri points out that a recent membership drive saw more than 500,000 people join.
"Out of this number almost 20 per cent were women," she said, "and a huge percentage were made up of students." The challenge for Mr Khan's party, said political analyst Hassan Askari, is turning talk into action. "They are considered as a party of talkers and not a party of doers," he said. "And it's understandably hard for them to do much since they don't have enough resources at their disposal."
That sentiment was summed up by Malik Mohammed, 25, a shopkeeper, who smiled when asked for his opinion about Mr Khan. "He is a good man and has done a lot of work for the poor and ill of this country," he said, referring to the cancer hospital the ex-cricketer has built. The Shaukat Khanum Memorial Trust hospital is one of the largest such facilities in Pakistan where cancer patients are treated for free.
But when asked if he would vote for the party's candidate, Mr Mohammed shook his head and said: "No, because I think the Pakistan Muslim League will get work done here." The party is trying to address these issues, said Omar Cheema, the information secretary. "No one doubts Khan's credibility. He is the only politician who has contributed to the national pride by winning us the cricket World Cup and establishing the charity hospital. Slowly trust in other PTI candidates is also emerging and hopefully through our outreach message support for Khan will trickle down."
Ms Cheema said more than 80 per cent of party members were youth. While Mr Khan might not be able to translate his popularity into votes for his party's candidates, he might be able to do it for himself, if midterm elections for prime minister were brought forward. But of course there are always the personal slurs that come back to haunt him each time he campaigns. He was known as a playboy, he went on to marry a Jewish convert to Islam, and as a politician he has often sided with right-wing religious parties who are in direct contrast to the secular ideals of his supporters.
"The problem with Khan is that no one forgets his past even though he would like people to forget it," said Shabina Riaz, a member of the Pakistan People's Party. "His past is filled with contradictions." * The National