Imran Khan steps to the podium above a swirl of red and green flags, raises his arms, and begins his trademark tirade against the crimes of Pakistan's corrupt ruling elite.

The country's woes are due to traitorous political leaders who have salted away huge sums overseas while at the same time abandoning the people of Pakistan, the cricketer-turned-politician declares.

Promising a cleaner government, better justice and a welfare state, he vows to give the floodlit thousands gathered in Lahore a new Pakistan.

The 65-year-old, who won adulation for leading the 1992 cricket World Cup-winning side, has long been espousing his anti-corruption message.

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But until now, his campaign has shown little sign of breaking through against Pakistan's traditional powerhouse political parties.

Yet with the country's general election being held on Wednesday, polls show Khan is now running neck-and-neck with the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N), the party of jailed former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

More than 22 years after founding his Pakistan Justice Movement party (PTI), Khan stands on the cusp of power in deeply divided elections that could see only the country's second democratic power transition.

The PTI puts the Khan momentum down to a growing understanding of the corrosive effect of corruption and the broken promises of the Sharif Government.

But his rivals and rights groups say his transformed fortunes come with the backing of the security establishment which has pressured his opponents and muzzled the media.

The result has been Pakistan's "dirtiest election", I. A. Rehman, a prominent activist, claimed this week.

Khan told a rally in Lahore on Wednesday night: "It is high time the nation should rise and reject the two corrupt parties that have eaten up all resources and made the country bankrupt."

Supporters of Imran Khan were out in force in Lahore this week. Photo / AP
Supporters of Imran Khan were out in force in Lahore this week. Photo / AP

He castigated PML-N leaders, particularly Sharif, for "failing the nation and amassing wealth".

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His message appeared to have hit home.

Corruption is the first word on the lips of his supporters in Lahore.

Asim Bhatti, a 45-year-old pharmacist, voted for the PML-N in the 2013 election, but said he had since become disillusioned.

"The biggest problem in Pakistan is corruption," he said. "Our leadership is corrupt. The main political parties are both so corrupt. In fact, corrupt is too small a word for them. They are a mafia. I think the majority of people have changed their minds."

To stand any chance of winning against Sharif's PML-N, Khan must win seats in Lahore, in its Punjab stronghold. Punjab has more than half the country's 210 million people and has been the Sharif family's political base for decades. Lahore, its capital, is a two-horse race where banners face off in the streets bearing Khan's cricket bat symbol or Sharif's tiger.

In 2013, all but one of the city's constituencies went to the PML-N. For Khan to overturn that, he must rely on candidates such as Dr Yasmin Rashid. The 67-year-old retired doctor and former head of the Pakistan Medical Association is trying to strike at the heart of the PML-N stronghold by standing in a constituency held by the family leadership itself.

The NA-125 seat was held by Sharif until he was ousted last year, then it was taken over at a by-election by his wife. Rashid lost in 2013 by nearly 40,000 votes, but that margin fell dramatically in last year's by-election. This year, Rashid believes Khan's anti-corruption message has put victory within sight.

She said: "To quite an extent, the message that Imran Khan has been giving to everyone, that we need a corruption-free society, has been driven home."

Rashid dismissed claims that the military establishment had tipped the balance in Khan's favour. She said: "They want to malign the results by saying the establishment is involved."