ISLAMABAD — With expectations rising in Pakistan of an election being called within months, anti-American politicians are in the ascendancy, leaving the current pro-U.S. government facing defeat.
Imran Khan, a charismatic former cricket star turned politician who is fiercely anti-American, has grabbed the popular imagination recently. But it's another critic of the U.S., former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, who's more likely to rise to the top.
Sharif's party, which leads the official opposition and rules the provincial government in the all-important Punjab region, this year stopped accepting U.S. aid money as funds from an "enemy." Khan promises to tear up Islamabad's alliance with Washington, and he's made resistance to U.S. drone missile strikes against suspected militants in Pakistan's tribal areas one of the cornerstones of his politics.
The government of President Asif Zardari, whose party was helped to power in 2008 under a deal with Pakistan's military that was brokered in part by Washington, is sinking in popularity, mired in corruption scandals and tarnished by poor performance in office.
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The Obama administration is pressing Pakistan to help it in Afghanistan by cutting off insurgent sanctuaries on its territory and bringing "reconcilable" Taliban to the negotiating table. But in a country of soaring anti-Americanism, the coming to power of Sharif or Khan could sink whatever remains of the troubled Washington-Islamabad partnership.
A survey in June by Pew Research Center, a Washington-based pollster, found that 73 percent of Pakistanis have an unfavorable view of the United States, while just 14 percent believed that it's a good thing that Osama bin Laden was killed.
Khan, who entered politics 15 years ago but has struggled to gain traction until now, staged a massive rally Sunday in Lahore, the provincial capital of Punjab, where he proclaimed that an electoral "tsunami" would sweep him to power.
He has a reputation for being favored by Pakistan's powerful military, which controls the country's foreign and security policies and shapes the relationship with the United States.
"Our leaders owned this war on terror for the sake of dollars," Khan told the crowd in Lahore, Sharif's hometown. "You sold out the blood of innocent people."
Pakistanis are deeply disillusioned with both Zardari's Pakistan Peoples Party and Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-N, which have alternated in power but are accused of corruption and incompetence. Many see the untried Khan as a savior, in a country heading toward collapse under extremist violence and an economy in free fall.
But Pakistan doesn't have a presidential election system, meaning that Khan stands a chance only if there is a sea-change in voting behavior and millions break out of the established system of political party loyalty.
In Pakistan, voters elect local candidates, and the party with the most elected candidates gets to form the government. Khan lacks strong local candidates and party machinery, compared with the two big political parties.
That gives an important advantage to Zardari, who's proved adept at building political coalitions, an art that has eluded Khan and Sharif. Zardari's government is a coalition of four political parties.
But Zardari is wildly unpopular, even within his own party, the Pew survey found, with just 11 percent of those surveyed saying they held a favorable view of him.
In contrast, Pew found that 68 percent of the population had a favorable view of Khan and 63 percent had a positive opinion of Sharif.
A July opinion survey by Gallup Pakistan, an independent polling organization, which wasn't released to the public, reportedly found that Zardari's PPP would win just 19 percent of the vote, compared with 31 percent in the last election, while the share going to Sharif's party would soar to 41 percent from 20 percent.
Many commentators believe that Zardari could call an election anytime after March, when elections to Pakistan's Senate would mean that his party secures control of the upper house of parliament. He doesn't have to call the election until February 2013.
Balloting in Punjab will prove critical, whenever the vote is held. The province, where 80 million of Pakistan's 180 million population live, holds more than half the seats in parliament.
Poling data from the last six months show Sharif with a comfortable majority in Punjab, which would translate into a nationwide majority. But his voters are vulnerable, and this vulnerability could lead to change, said Ijaz Gilani, chairman of Gallup Pakistan.
Khan's support is surging in the central and northern parts of Punjab, which have been Sharif's stronghold. Some believe that the military is keen on Khan because he would take seats away from Sharif, who was toppled from power in a coup in 1999 and holds a deep grudge against the armed forces.
A Western diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said that London and Washington were wary of Sharif because his tenure could lead to a destabilizing clash with the military. He also said that there were concerns over the links of Sharif's party to religious extremists and the autocratic style he showed while last in office.
But Pakistani analysts say it's likely that whoever runs the next government will have done so because he was able to build bridges to other parties.
"I don't think the election will produce an outright winner, so whoever can build coalitions will come out on top," said Hasan Askari Rizvi, an analyst based in Lahore. "If Imran Khan and Nawaz Sharif join forces for the election, then the PPP is in real trouble."
(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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