Imran Khan begins race to lead Pakistan but can he please the ‘umpires’?

  • In run-up to elections, the former cricketer has drawn wide support as well as claims he is complicit with the military

Outside a samosa stall in Lahore, the hometown of Imran Khan, a group of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) supporters put down their forks to recall the glories of the 1992 Cricket World Cup, when the final wicket fell like a matchstick before the fast bowling of the team captain. “He was like a tiger,” says Imran Raja, who remembers the final. “I watch it all the time on YouTube,” chips in 21-year-old Hassan, mourning that he was not alive to see Khan lift the trophy, according to The Guardian.

On July 25, Pakistan holds a general election in which Khan, who founded the PTI in 1996 and goes by the nickname Captain, stands a good chance of a still more significant victory. Posters bearing the party logo, a bat and ball, deck the streets of Lahore. In language typical of a 65-year-old who has transferred boundless energy to the electoral field, Khan warned party workers “not to stop until the final ball” at a gathering in the city on Thursday.

Although polls show the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) retaining a lead, most analysts predict that a combination of a spate of defections, court cases and pressure from the military establishment will deny the party a second consecutive term.

Families are split. Parked in their car on a side-street in the Lahore constituency Khan is contesting, Mehreen leans over her husband, Yasser, a PML-N supporter, to shout through the window: “Imran Khan is the only hope for Pakistan.”

Regardless of who wins, difficulties loom. Pakistan’s economy is teetering and is likely to require a bailout from the International Monetary Fund, after the current account deficit doubled this year. An international money-laundering watchdog put Pakistan back on its “grey list”, indicating insufficient efforts to combat financing of terrorism. And a financial slowdown could reduce the leeway to protect the country from a water crisis, or bolster decrepit hospitals and schools.

Since returning from England in 2006, Khan has worked hard to shed the playboy reputation of his cricket career. Then, he was married to heiress Jemima Goldsmith and posed in his briefs for the Daily Mirror. Today he wears the shalwar kameez (trousers and tunic), flicks prayer beads through his fingers, and in January wed his spiritual adviser, Burshra Maneka.

In the eyes of his supporters, however, his credibility lies in his clean fingers. Khan is a philanthropist who has set up three cutting-edge cancer hospitals; his financial probity stands in contrast to the PML-N founder, Nawaz Sharif, and his family, who currently face trial for money laundering. They have pleaded not guilty and deny any wrongdoing.

It was Khan’s dogged campaigning that forced the Supreme Court to take up the Panama Papers last year, a move which led to Sharif’s ousting as prime minister. “Khan is an honest man,” says Raheel Malik, a 40-year-old IT worker. “He should get a chance to put into practice what he is saying.”

Yet the PTI chairman appears less confident than he did in the run-up to the last election. “If you look at the campaign, the PTI hasn’t resonated as it did in 2013”, when it grabbed the votes of the young and middle-class to become the country’s second-largest party by votes, says TV host Fasi Zaka. That partly that comes down to the compromises Khan has made on the way.

For the past two weeks long-standing party members have protested outside Khan’s lavish homes in Islamabad and Lahore, furious at being denied tickets to run for election in favour of “electables”, politicians who switch parties with the wind and bring their own vote-banks – and often corruption scandals – with them.

Unlike five years ago, when the party promised to transform health and education and brought in a new cadre of untested politicians, this time Khan admitted: “We have only one strategy: defeat the Noon-league [the PML-N].”

The more wizened observers of Pakistani politics argue that picking up “electables” is the only route to power in the crucial province of Punjab, dominated by the PML-N for the past 30 years. “You need the right horses,” says 23-year-old Saeed Zaman, a volunteer in the constituency Khan is contesting. Others feel that by bringing in a third of its candidates from other parties, the PTI has lost its appeal as a purgatory force.

“How can Imran Khan’s laundry wash their sins clean?” laments Muhammad Asghar, 60, who says he will no longer cast a vote for the party.

Hopes that Khan could deliver the promised “new Pakistan” have also suffered somewhat from the record of his five-year government in the northern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The delivery of health insurance to a million poor families, improvement in public hospitals and removal of political interference in the police draw some recognition from voters, but expectations – whipped into the stratosphere during the campaign – have not been met.

Khan has also lost former allies in the elite. “Feminists and liberals are quite shocked that he is still treated by some as a progressive leader,” says Ashaar Rehman, the Lahore editor of Dawn newspaper.

He calls liberals “blood-suckers” for supporting the war against the Pakistani Taliban, which he opposes in favour of negotiation. His provincial government granted $30,000 to the madrasa of Samiul Haq, a notorious front for Taliban fighters (in return Haq has formed an alliance with the PTI).

And similarly damaging is the impression of complicity with military-backed efforts to interfere in the election. Khan has not spoken out as journalists have been abducted, TV stations taken off air, and Dawn’s distribution blocked in some areas.

“He enjoys the rumours of establishment support,” says Umair Javed, a consultant. “His understanding of Punjab politics is that he is much more likely to do well if people believe the army is behind him.”

Still, Khan has a hot-headed, independent streak that unnerves the military leadership. In a sign of his sympathy for the Pashtun Protection Movement, a civil rights movement that claims the army supports the Taliban, Khan is not running candidates against its leaders in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

In a recent interview with the Guardian, he stressed that the famous “umpires” of Pakistani politics would step back if he took power, just as he ensured neutral umpires in cricket matches against India in 1987. Whether, like so many other civilian leaders, he is eventually stumped by the military, only time will tell.


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