Imran Khan, Pakistan's charismatic populist candidate for prime minister, tumbled 4.5 metres from a platform at an election rally this week, three days before the country's historic elections. But his ambitious campaign may still see his party through the polls on Saturday. Unable now to glimpse Mr. Khan on stage – his injuries are said to be not serious, but they have kept him off the campaign trail – thousands of well-wishers instead await him outside a hospital in Lahore.
For more than a week, his supporters had struggled to keep up with the 60-year-old Mr. Khan as he criss-crossed the country, holding nearly a dozen rallies a day that drew crowds of tens of thousands. Even from a hospital bed, he mesmerized supporters with a speech via video link. And his injuries may even win him some sympathy votes.
Handsome and Oxford-educated, the former world-class cricketer formed his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party 17 years ago. It has never won more than a single seat in parliament. But now polls suggest the party is neck-and-neck with the Pakistan Muslim League, led by two-time prime minister Nawaz Sharif.
Mr. Khan's ascent has been swift. Three years ago, he was dismissed as a political nobody. He pushed a heady, controversial platform, promising to rid Pakistan of endemic corruption, negotiate a truce with the Taliban and shoot down U.S. drones. By last spring, he was the most popular politician in Pakistan, with a 70-per-cent approval rating. Among Pakistanis under 31, who account for a third of all voters, his rating hit 76 per cent.
"It's the first time in my life I found an honest, competent person and a platform for the common person to work for," said Rubina Shaheen, a young, first-time voter who lives in Gulberg, one of Lahore's upscale neighbourhoods. Ms. Shaheen was so enthused that she volunteered and led a team of women who have been campaigning door to door for Mr. Khan for several months.
"Terrorism, poverty … there's all kinds of problems," she said. "When there is an honest leader on top, many problems will be solved on their own."
Mr. Khan was already well-known for his philanthropy: He has built free hospitals and a university and helped deliver aid after devastating floods in 2010. For this election, his party pioneered the use of social media – using custom applications for smartphones to keep supporters updated about the campaign – and built a grassroots movement by appealing directly to younger voters. His is also the only major party to have held primaries for the selection of local candidates and leaders. And he recruited new faces: 80 per cent of PTI candidates have never held elected office, 60 per cent have never run for office, and 37 per cent are under the age of 40.
Mr. Khan's rallies are sometimes like rock concerts. Last Sunday night, in Lahore, pop music blared from speakers as crowds of mostly middle class voters awaited his arrival. Throngs of young men and women pleaded with security to let them go back-stage.
Mr . Khan has also been able to tap into the energy – and financial resources – of Pakistanis living abroad.
Changing Pakistan "might take half a century [and] a whole new generation … but you need someone who can put all this on track," said Muhammad Altaf, a businessman from Mississauga, Ont., who organized fundraising events in Toronto and New York City last year that raised millions of dollars for the PTI. When he came to Pakistan three months ago, he said, the flight from New York was packed with scores of PTI supporters.
Mr. Khan has struck a chord at home by leading protests against U.S. drone strikes. If elected, he told a rally last week, "I will order the army to shoot down a U.S. drone if it crosses the Pakistani border."
Like other candidates and parties, he has also promised to fight corruption and improve services - themes that resonate in a country where the major cities of Karachi and Lahore often have no electricity for much of the day. Since the last elections, in 2008, Pakistan'S GDP has dropped by half, and the rupee has lost 40 per cent its value. Nine in ten Pakistanis say in surveys that the country is heading in the wrong direction.
The PTI says it now has more than nine million members and more than 350,000 campaign volunteers. Whether they turn out is an open question. "Khan has recruited millions of new members," said Raza Rumi, director of the Jinnah Institute, a think tank in Islamabad. "But not all are going to be voters."
An estimated 25,000 people, though, showed up at a PTI rally late Thursday, Agence France-Presse reported. Mr. Khan wasn't there, but the crowd fell silent as his face was projected onto a screen. "God has given you this golden opportunity," he said, looking pale in a blue hospital gown, his voice weaker than usual. "Don't let it go."