On Pakistan's campaign trail with Imran Khan

The BBC's Orla Guerin has been speaking to Imran Khan

Pakistan is preparing to go to the polls for a landmark election on 11 May and the party led by the former cricket captain, Imran Khan, has been gaining ground.

If a week is a long time in politics, then 17 years is a punishing eternity. That is how long it has taken the former cricket star Imran Khan to nurture his party, and establish himself as a serious political player. He may be a game changer in the upcoming poll.

I joined Mr Khan on the campaign trail in Punjab, Pakistan's most populous province, and the key battleground in the election.

Flanked by supporters, party officials and old friends, he emerged in a flowing cream traditional shirt, and reflector sunglasses. "Looks like the Terminator," a colleague remarked. Mr Khan certainly hopes so.

He talks of a political tidal wave that will sweep him to power. It was a typical day on his tsunami tour - he crammed in a press conference, a party meeting, three rallies, and countless handshakes.

"It's as if people have already decided, " he said, as we drove through his hometown, Lahore. " They have tried these guys over and over again. I believe in this Abraham Lincoln saying: 'You can't fool all of the people all of the time.'"

Crowds at a rally for Imran Khan Mr Khan has attracted the support of many Pakistanis disillusioned with traditional politics

Mr Khan has made corruption an election issue, and is scathing about Pakistan's political establishment.

"I can tell you 80% of people in high office in Pakistan are criminals," he said. "I'm not exaggerating, I have doubts about the other 20% too. Were they in a Western democracy they would be in jail."

'No Fear'

In the heat of the afternoon, Mr Khan arrived in the dusty industrial city of Sheikhupura, where supporters had been waiting for hours, many of them young.

Mr Khan has mobilized a disaffected generation, and he will be relying on them come polling day. He needs a high turnout if he is to make his political breakthrough.

Hawkers moved around the crowd selling slices of coconut, and a handful of black-clad commandos kept watch. Their motto, No Fear, was emblazoned on the back of tee shirts. Loud speakers blared his campaign song "Insha'Allah" - God Willing.

"Are you ready for a new Pakistan?" he shouted, standing beneath a giant cricket bat.

Start Quote

Imran Khan

The more we kill them, the more militants we produce”

End Quote Imran Khan

The faithful cheered in reply, many waving the red, white, and green flags of his party, the Movement for Justice (PTI). As he promised to "bowl out" his opponents, a few raised cricket bats.

But some of his key campaign promises have a hollow ring, like his pledge to end corruption - in 90 days. Critics say he is naive, and dangerous. They accuse him of being soft on the Taliban.

He denies that and insists that talking that talking with militants is the way forward because fighting has not worked. "Unless you talk about killing and military action, you are supposedly soft on the Taliban," he says.

"What have nine years of military operations given Pakistan? We have more extremism and more terrorism."

He wants to take Pakistan out of the war on terror, and plays down the militant presence in the country. "Al Qaeda hardly exists here," he told us, "and what are called the Taliban are own tribal people. The more we kill them, the more militants we produce."

Reinvented man

Much of Mr Khan's rhetoric isn't easy listening for the West.

But among the crowd we found many who believe in Mr Khan's prescription for Pakistan.

"He is the only hope for Pakistan," said an earnest young man with black-framed glasses and a bright blue T-shirt. "We believe he is the man who can take us from all these crises, and solve the big issues like terrorism and poverty."

With his mantra of change, and his energetic campaign, Mr Khan has been pulling in the crowds around the country.

Imran Khan at a rally with his bodyguards Mr Khan says there is a threat to him from "political mafias" who are "capable of anything"

In stark contrast, many candidates from secular, liberal parties - who oppose the Taliban - hardly dare to appear in public. Militants have already killed nearly 50 people in election-related attacks in the past week. Secular candidates on are on their hit list.

Mr Khan says he faces a different kind of risk. "My threat is not from terrorists," he said " but from political mafias who are scared to lose the honey jar. I think they are capable of anything. "

To some here Khan is already a winner, before a single vote is cast, because he has reinvented himself.

The man formerly dismissed as a cricketing Don Juan in now seen by many as a serious challenger, according to political analyst Imtiaz Gul.

"Almost every man has been a playboy at a certain time of his life," he said. "People now judge him based on what is doing.

"They are submerged in problems and Imran Khan is addressing those issues. A lot of people believe that he might be the person who really means business, and who might deliver on his promises."

When the votes are cast, he may be put to the test.

Khan is expected to come in third, after the mainstays of Pakistani politics - the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PLM-N) and the Pakistan People's Party (PPP).

He could form part of a new governing coalition, or become a major voice in opposition. Either way, analysts predict he will be a formidable force.

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