Cricket Star. Sex Symbol. Prime Minister? It May Be Imran Khan’s Time.


LAHORE, Pakistan — Is Imran Khan, a legendary cricket player and international sex symbol, about to become the leader of Pakistan, an Islamic republic with nuclear weapons?

Mr. Khan made a name for himself on the world’s cricket pitches and in London’s swanky clubs. But in the two decades since he began striving for higher office in Pakistan, he has undergone a complicated transformation.

He has embraced pious Islam, railing against the West and distancing himself from his partying days — though his political organization still uses a cricket bat as its symbol. And on Wednesday, when Pakistan holds nationwide elections, Mr. Khan is the party leader widely seen as most likely to emerge with a shot at forming a government.

Mr. Khan enjoys genuine popularity across this country. He has used his celebrity, his charisma and his money to campaign against corruption, one of the most unifying issues in an Islamic republic that struggles with many dividing lines.

Pakistanis have witnessed one political dynasty after another enrich itself while the country crumbles. Public hospitals languish in frightening disrepair; infant mortality has reached higher rates than just about anywhere else in Asia; and countless young Pakistanis flee this country each year in search of work as drivers, janitors and construction workers abroad because there are so few decent jobs at home.

Mr. Khan has presented himself as a populist antidote to all that.

“He has no direct corruption scandal attributed to his person, which is rare in Pakistan, particularly with politicians,” said Raza Rumi, a prominent Pakistani journalist who is a political analyst at Cornell’s Institute of Public Affairs.

But it is not simply Mr. Khan’s clean image that explains his success this time around.

Evidence is mounting of extensive political manipulation by the country’s military authorities. Rights advocates and Mr. Khan’s political rivals accuse the military of selectively targeting Mr. Khan’s opponents, and muzzling the press when it has been critical.

The leader of what had been the country’s leading political party, the three-time prime minister Nawaz Sharif, was imprisoned less than two weeks ago. A year before, Supreme Court justices ousted him from office in a ruling that was widely seen as coming under pressure by the army.

Many members of Mr. Sharif’s party have defected, in what others have described as a targeted campaign by the security services to effectively behead the organization, which is known by the initials P.M.L.-N.

If the pattern of Mr. Khan’s political career to this point has been to underperform despite his advantages, in this election, he may finally have too many advantages to fail.

Mr. Khan speaks in a deep voice and comes across as confident and relaxed, down-to-earth but also perhaps a touch remote.

And he insists that he is not in the army’s pocket — even as he expresses his support for the military.

“I think a democratic government rules from moral authority,” Mr. Khan said in an interview with The New York Times this spring. “And if you don’t have moral authority, then those who have the physical authority assert themselves. In my opinion, it is the Pakistan Army and not an enemy army. I will carry the army with me.”

Many analysts are skeptical about his claims of independence.

“He is their puppet,” said Christine Fair, a political scientist at Georgetown. “He is where he is now because of the army and I.S.I.” — the military intelligence service — “which have engaged in massive prepoll shenanigans and will continue the day of the elections and after to ensure an Imran Khan-led coalition.”

How will Mr. Khan then govern?

Pakistan is a pivotal nation, the world’s sixth largest by population, nuclear-armed and a geopolitical hot spot because of its long-standing enmity with India and its support for militant proxies including the Afghan Taliban.

Mr. Khan has said he would like to make peace with India. And though he criticized some of the Taliban’s violence, he has also publicly defended the group and its aims. He has taken a hard line against the United States, bitterly complaining about drone strikes in Pakistan and calling the war on terrorism “madness.”

“His foreign policy is centrally anti-American,” said Omar Waraich, deputy South Asia director at Amnesty International.

Domestically, Mr. Khan — or anyone else who wins — is likely to be overwhelmed. Pakistan’s economy keeps sliding, and many public assets are in crisis, including the electricity grid and water supply.

Though Mr. Khan’s personal credentials for governance are still an unknown, his party has governed the vast but sparsely populated province of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa since 2013. While its record there is mixed, it has been credited with improving government services.

If his party does not win an outright majority on Wednesday, things could get complex.

Mr. Khan has said he will not form a coalition with either of the other two leading parties, calling them too corrupt for such an alliance. The result could be a weak and fractured parliament that would be unable to hold its own.

Mr. Khan, 65, has had an enchanting life, though not always a consistent one.

Born to a privileged family, educated at Oxford, a lover to many beautiful and famous women and a superstar athlete considered one of the best in cricket’s history, his experiences couldn’t be more different than those of most Pakistanis.

He reached heroic status in 1992, captaining Pakistan’s cricket team to a World Cup final victory over England, the former colonial power. It was an immense moment of national pride, and Mr. Khan was at the center of it. He was also 39 and nursing a shoulder injury.

A few years later, he went through a soul-searching conversion. He raised millions of dollars to build a cancer hospital for the poor (his mother had died of cancer) and he started to become more deeply interested in Islam. He moved away from the limelight and dating celebrities, saying that kind of life had never been very satisfying.

“It looks from the outside very glamorous, great, but actually it’s not,” he told a British newspaper. “It’s these transitory relationships. They’re pretty empty.”

In 1996, he founded his Justice Movement. His party struggled in obscurity for years, barely winning any seats in Pakistan’s national assembly, and for a time, Mr. Khan the superstar became Mr. Khan the joke. A Pakistani newspaper ridiculed him as “Im the Dim”; others called him “Imran Khan’t.”

The other two major parties, Mr. Sharif’s PML-N Muslim League and the Pakistan Peoples Party founded by the Bhutto family, proved better organized. They had established vast patronage networks throughout the country.

In many areas, landlords and tribal chiefs still command enormous sway. Such grandees, if given the right incentives, can deliver huge blocks of votes, which Mr. Khan’s scrappy political outfit struggled against.

But even during these years, Mr. Khan attracted a passionate following. “Who will save Pakistan?” his supporters would cheer at his rallies. “Imran Khan! Imran Khan!”

Many conservative Muslim Pakistanis now forgive him for his decadent past.

“How he behaved before, that’s his business,” said Tanveer Haider, a Pakistani crane operator working in the Middle East who flew home this week so he could vote for Mr. Khan’s party. “I care about what he will do for this country. Of all the politicians, he will do the most.”

Analysts say Pakistan is desperate for change, and that’s what Mr. Khan represents.

“The vast section of urban Pakistanis, not all, are kind of tired of the two parties,” Mr. Rumi said. “They feel that we need to move beyond them and he’s a way out.”

For all the fawning that Mr. Khan has enjoyed, he has also taken his lumps and shown a fair bit of resilience — particularly when it comes to the consuming attention given to his private life.

His first wife was Jemima Goldsmith, a British heiress with some Jewish heritage. Soon enough, Mr. Khan was accused by some Pakistanis of being controlled by a Zionist conspiracy, which he laughed off.

His second wife recently published a memoir that included allegations of lurid indiscretions in Mr. Khan’s private life; he has let that roll off his back as well.

His third and current wife is known as a spiritual healer; already many Pakistanis are quietly talking about the rituals Mr. Khan and his wife are believed to practice.

Trying to sum up what Mr. Khan stands for, Ashutosh Varshney, the director of the Center for Contemporary South Asia at Brown University, said: “Imran is a maddening medley of an incredible sporting talent, an incorrigible international playboy and a vengefully ambitious politician. He can’t bring democracy to Pakistan — for democracy to institutionalize, the army must step back as a minimum condition.”

“No democracy can work that way,” Mr. Varshney added, “elections or no elections.”

Source : Nytimes