Pakistan’s Election Season Begins With Two Very Different Candidates

Both considered outsiders, Imran Khan and Pervez Musharraf are wooing voters sick of the traditional parties. But only one is gaining traction

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Imran Khan

Imran Khan, of the opposition political party Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, speaks to supporters during a rally in the Pakistani city of Lahore on March 23, 2013

Pakistan’s election campaign kicked off at the weekend with a massive political rally led by Lahore’s best-known celebrity — plus the surprise return to the country by a former military ruler. On Saturday, Imran Khan drew an impressive crowd of around 150,000 people in Lahore. And in Karachi the next day, ex-President Pervez Musharraf returned to Pakistan after four years in self-imposed exile, hazarding a journey that offers few political rewards — and carries real risks to his life.

The Khan rally in Lahore was the closest Pakistani politics gets to a rock concert. The festive mood was apparent throughout the many clogged arteries that led to the venue, the landmark Minto Park in city’s old quarter. Young men were crammed on top of brightly painted buses, whooping with joy, waving party flags and swaying to their blare of their music. A group of drummers roused pedestrians with quick-paced bhangra rhythms.

They were drawn from all over the country through a well-financed and heavily advertised campaign. But they were also drawn, they said, by a simple yet nebulous message. “We want change,” says Hafiz Abdul Rehman, a student from Lahore, echoing scores of other Khan supporters at the rally. The traditional politicians, he said, have failed their people. They are accused of being venal, inept and distant. By contrast, many supporters said, Khan has an image of a clean politician committed to doing something for Pakistanis. “People see Imran as a savior,” says Khadijah Shah, a Lahore fashion designer. “They don’t really go much into what his policies are.”

Musharraf too is courting the votes of people disenchanted with Pakistan’s traditional parties. On Sunday, he landed in Karachi airport, vowing to “save Pakistan.” In a sign of his limited appeal, however, only a few hundred people turned up to meet him. Musharraf has dodged the threat of arrest by winning bail in cases against him. But a graver threat is the Taliban, who paraded a death squad on TV and threatened to kill him. “Musharraf is taking an unnecessary risk for a political future which is just not there,” says Hassan Abbas, a senior adviser at Asia Society.

(MORE: Musharraf Returns to Pakistan amid Death Threats)

Musharraf is unlikely to make an impact in the elections, partly because voters looking for an alternative find Khan a more attractive choice. There are concerns among some of Khan’s supporters about his attitude to the Pakistani Taliban – wanting to negotiate with them – and the decision to work with the Jamaat-e-Islami, a hard-line religious party. But the mere fact that he represents a political force that hasn’t been compromised by power works in his favor — as does Khan’s celebrity. “He won us the Cricket World Cup,” says Shah, “he built us a cancer hospital, and he’s really good looking.”

That appeal isn’t limited to women, who seem more numerous at Khan’s rallies than those of other parties. Young men walked around the park with T-shirts bearing a younger Khan’s face on them, from his cricketing days. While other speakers shouted themselves hoarse on the stage, the crowd looked unmoved. “We know what these opportunists are all about,” says Ghazanfar Ali, a stockbroker, in reference to the politicians who joined Khan’s party over the past year, as his popularity has risen. “We’re only here for Imran.” The crowds chatted in small groups. When the music played, they rose to dance. And when it came to Khan’s turn to speak, the park quickly filled up. They sat down and waited intently for the closing act.

Khan sounds relaxed about the focus on him. “It’s true all over South Asia that party leaders are important,” he tells TIME. But to achieve his ambition of coming to power, he’ll have to build up a party, something that’s eluded him. Recent polls show that former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League–Nawaz (PML-N) is tipped to win the highest number of seats. Khan surged after holding an equally sized rally in Lahore in October 2011. Since then, he’s dipped in the polls. “While we were focused on holding internal elections,” says Khan, “the PML-N started propaganda against us that we had disappeared. Now, with this rally, we’ve shown our strength again.”

Since Khan emerged as a threat, the PML-N has gone on the offensive. They built a mass-transit system in the city of Lahore that has won wide praise, even among Khan supporters. “I can’t deny my city’s looking better,” concedes Shah, the fashion designer. In Punjab, the PML-N’s provincial government has sought out the youth who are vulnerable to Khan’s appeal, tempting them away with the offer of free laptops for promising students and solar panels for their homes. They also cobbled together an impressive string of electoral alliances. Since the province of Punjab holds half of Parliament’s seats, the main battle of the coming election will be between Sharif and Khan there.

(MORE: Two Cheers for Pakistani Democracy: A Sobering Milestone)

Analysts say Khan isn’t likely to win more than a couple dozen seats. But the PML-N isn’t getting complacent. “Imran Khan has definitely made a constituency for himself, the size of which is underestimated,” says Khawaja Muhammad Asif, an PML-N leader. “We should not rule him out.” Khan’s support, as the attendees at the rally demonstrated, is principally drawn from the urban middle classes. Better educated, more religious and more nationalistic than the rest of the country, they have taken to Khan’s criticism of U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan, his stance against corruption and his own displays of religiosity. But they only represent a small, though influential, part of the electorate.

For some of Khan’s voters, it doesn’t matter if he doesn’t win. “I’m not worried about the outlook,” says Ali, the stockbroker. “My conscience is fixed on how best to cast my vote.” But Khan says he’s determined to win. He speaks excitedly of how a quarter of his candidates will be from the youth, and how he’s going to counter the money of the big parties with an Internet-based fundraising drive of his own. “The party we have now is invincible,” Khan says. “We’re the only party that can hold big rallies in all of Pakistan’s major cities, and 90% of the country wants change.”

The coming campaign, Khan says, will be like a “tsunami.” It’s an ill-advised phrase he’s been using to speak of how his wave of supporters will destroy a political system they despise. On Saturday, Khan was unable to complete his speech at the park because heavy rain began to lash the venue. “Congratulations,” Khan told the crowd, wiping his face. “The tsunami has come!”