Thousands gather to hear Imran Khan’s hospital bed election address

PTI supporters hope a late surge can lift former cricketer to win Saturday’s vote

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The Independent Online

Tens of thousands of frenetic, flag-waving voters poured into Pakistan's capital on tonight to listen to Imran Khan address them from his hospital bed on a dramatic final day of campaigning ahead of Saturday's general election.

Unable to attend the Islamabad event in person after he fell and injured his back while campaigning earlier in the week, Mr Khan addressed the crush of people - most of them apparently aged in their 20s and 30s - by video-link from his hospital in Lahore.

“God has given us a chance. Don't let it slip away,” urged Mr Khan, his head propped on a pillow, dressed in a blue hospital gown and a gash showing on his forehead. “We must break the status quo.”

He added: “Let's make a promise to that we will vote for the PTI and we will make a new foundation for Pakistan...and there will be peace, stability and justice.”

At one point, as the crowd roared its appreciation, the former cricketer appeared to wipe tears from both eyes.

The packed rally marked the culmination of a remarkable campaign by the former cricket star who surged, was written-off and then rebounded in the final weeks of the campaign, borne by millions of supporters desperate for change. One poll this week suggested Mr Khan was neck-and-neck with the presumed front-runner Nawaz Sharif. The election heralds the first democratic transfer of power in Pakistan's 66-year history.

“We need change. We need someone different from the traditional parties. We want our generation to feel like they are in a new place,” said Saman Qayyum, a 24-year-old architecture graduate who was among huge numbers of young women who turned out. “We need to address the electricity shortage, our education system and our identity. If you go abroad you feel ashamed as a Pakistani - we have lost our identity.”

The 60-year-old Mr Khan draws much of support from Pakistan's young. But his appeal cuts across groups and classes who are drawn to him for different reasons, among them some of the nation's religious conservatives.

Ibaad ur Rehman, a 26-year-old engineer was among a group of young people wearing T-shirts of Mr Khan's Pakistan Movement for Justice (PTI) party driving on the motorway towards Islamabad for the rally. “He is going to make structural changes to Pakistan. Feudals and industrialists have been coming to power on the back of ordinary people,” he claimed.

Overwhelmingly, however, his supporters say they want to try something different. They are tired with corruption, tired with stifling power cuts, and tired with poor governance. Having campaigned as the anti-establishment candidate, Mr Khan has been able to tap into a deep pool of discontent.

“I will vote for the PTI because I want change,” said Radha Khan, a 22-year-old student who was sipping coffee in an upmarket cafe in Lahore this week. “There is an opportunity with Imran Khan. We think he has the same qualities as the founder of Pakistan, who said we needed a separate country and I think Imran Khan will ensure we have a good country.”

Following his fall from a forklift truck on Tuesday, Mr Khan, who first contested an election in 1997 and failed, has been confined to a ward in Lahore's Shaukat Khanum Memorial hospital, which he established in memory of his mother. A friend said Mr Khan would need to stay there for several days.

Outside, supporters had left hundreds of bunches of flowers and messages of support. “You won the 1992 cricket World Cup with a shoulder injury. You will win the 2013 election with an injured back and neck, God willing,” said one message, signed by Faisal Quzafi Kashif.

One well-wisher, Mueen Bukhari, a 48-year-old father of two, said he had  travelled from southern Punjab, an area where Mr Khan has eaten into support usually loyal to Mr Sharif. “I voted for Nawaz in 2008 but now I support Imran Khan. He has a new idea, a new concept,” said Mr Bukhari. “If you have a good leader, then it improves things at grass-roots.”

Can Mr Khan pull off a victory? His supporters admit it will be tight but are convinced they have history on their side. Mr Bukhari, standing outside the hospital, the air fragrant from hundreds of flowers, declared: “I am 100 per cent hopeful.”