x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Fall may prove election boost for Imran Khan

Bandaged cricketer turned politician makes plea to Pakistan from his hospital bed, following fall from crane. Taimur Khan reports from Karachi

A supporter of Pakistani cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan lays a floral wreath outside the Shaukat Khanum hospital in Lahore.
A supporter of Pakistani cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan lays a floral wreath outside the Shaukat Khanum hospital in Lahore.

KARACHIi // The Pakistani politician Imran Khan's nearly five-metre fall from an election rally platform could spur a sympathy-fuelled turnout of undecided voters in a close election race.

Mr Khan was expected to make a full recovery.

The leader of the Movement for Justice party (PTI), which is expected to be a leading contender in Saturday's general elections, toppled head first from a forklift that was raising him and three guards to a stage at a rally in Lahore on Tuesday when a man on stage bent over, knocking Mr Khan and his guards off balance.

The 60-year-old former cricketer fractured three vertebrae and a rib and suffered cuts to his head, but had not injured his spine, his doctor, Faisal Sultan, said. "We are very confident that all these fractures will heal with time and will heal completely and allow him to be fully, completely functional and fit as he always is," he added.

Footage of the bloodied, semi-conscious politician was broadcast continuously on Pakistani news channels until Mr Khan gave a television interview from his hospital bed that added an unexpected factor into a heated election that observers say is far to close to call.

"I did whatever I could for this country," a grim-faced Mr Khan said, his head wrapped in bandages. "Now you have to decide whether you want to make a new Pakistan."

After weeks of vitriolic campaign rhetoric, Nawaz Sharif, the leader of the election's front-running party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), suspended his campaign yesterday and cancelled attack ads directed at Mr Khan.

The fall ended Mr Khan's seemingly endless cross-country barnstorming, which saw more than 60 rallies in the past 10 days, just before the finale tomorrow night in Islamabad. He will not be able to attend in person, his party's information secretary Shireen Mazari said, but he will probaby address it by video link.

Tapping into discontent among Pakistan's rising urban middle classes over the past five years of democratic rule, Mr Khan's campaign has shaken up Pakistan's politics, which has been dominated by two parties in the periods when the military has not run the country.

Mr Khan has been in politics since the mid-1990s, but burst on to the national stage with huge rallies in Lahore and Karachi in 2011 in which he vowed to sweep away the perceived corruption and patronage of the two major parties, the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), led by Asif Ali Zardari, and PML-N.

His party, which has never held more than Mr Khan's seat in parliament, is now considered the third main challenger and is running neck-and-neck with Mr Sharif, 63, a former prime minister, in the all-important Punjab, the rapidly urbanised and most populous province.

While most political analysts still predict that Mr Sharif's party will win the election, the PTI is an increasingly threatening wild card, with huge numbers turning out for rallies in the past week.

No party will earn enough votes to form a strong coalition government and, without reliable polling data, it is difficult to gauge how deeply Mr Khan's popularity runs outside of cities and if it is enough to upend the political machines that sustain the rival parties.

The two men compete for a similar demographic of upwardly mobile city dwellers, but Mr Khan's message of change has struck a particular chord with young urban voters whose job prospects have been badly affected by five years of economic free fall.

With his superstar status, good looks and his party's deft use of social media, Mr Khan has politicised normally apathetic young Pakistanis, who make up about half of the 80 million registered voters.

Whether young people, many of whom have never voted before, will turn out on election day is an open question, and one that could decide the election. Mr Khan's party broadcast a television advert yesterday featuring footage of the fall, and his bedside speech, set to music.

"Its success on May 11 hinges on the ability of the PTI to get voters out," said Raza Rumi, the director of policy at the Jinnah Institute think tank in Islamabad. "After yesterday's fall and subsequent message from his hospital bed, the most dramatic reality TV ever shown in Pakistan, it will increase."

Even if he is prevented from campaigning in the crucial days before the election, the fall will "energise his base, bring those on the fence to the polling booth and may even bring additional voters" from other parties, Mr Rumi added.

But even a stronger turnout than expected will probably not be enough for the PTI to win the elections outright, Mr Rumi said.

tkhan@thenational.ae

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