Imran Khan, Pakistan's greatest cricketing hero, has no time for doubters. This time next year, he says, he will be Prime Minister of Pakistan. The corruption that plagues the country will be no more. Extremism will be on the wane, and the economy, now comatose, will be booming. Mid-soliloquy Khan notices a raised eyebrow few in Pakistan think he has any realistic chance of winning the upcoming election, let alone performing such postelection miracles and he immediately counters with a small history lesson.
Australia, March 1992: midway through the Cricket World Cup, Pakistan is flailing. Khan, who has come out of retirement to captain the national team, and was 39 at the time of the tournament, is derided in a national newspaper as an "aging, unfit warrior," with his squad similarly dismissed as "demoralized, listless and wayward." Bookies have given Pakistan 50-1 odds. What does Khan do? He picks up the phone and advises a friend to bet on Pakistan. And bet big. "When you have been in competition as long as I, you develop an instinct, a sixth sense, about winning and losing," says Khan. "I knew we would win." The friend never placed that bet, a move he regrets to this day, says Khan with a chuckle. Pakistan beat England in the final, giving the country its sole World Cup finals victory, which remains untarnished by time, not least because the country has had so little to celebrate since then.
Khan's sixth sense tells him he's headed for another improbable victory. This time, the odds are even longer. For all his 16 years in politics, Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), or Pakistan's Movement for Justice, has won only one of the 272 elected seats in the National Assembly, for which he served one truncated term that ended in 2007. Yet Khan believes nay, knows that when elections are called in Pakistan next year, his party will win enough seats to secure him the most powerful job in the land, enabling him to make the fundamental changes that he says the country so desperately needs. "It will be a clean sweep," he declares, leaning forward to pound the broad coffee table centered in the seating area of his home's deep veranda. "It is only a question of whether it will be a simple majority, or if we will get two-thirds" enough to override the opposition.
While that confidence may in part stem from Khan being easily the most popular politician in Pakistan a recent Pew Global Attitudes Project poll gave him a 70% approval rating, compared with 36% for the then Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani and 14% for President Asif Ali Zardari political analysts and pollsters say he would be lucky to get 20 to 40 seats in the next election. That's largely because Pakistan's entrenched patronage networks and lingering feudal system have always firmly steered the rural vote in favor of the established parties leaving little chance for Khan's party in much of the country. "Popularity doesn't necessarily translate into electoral success," says Mohammad Waseem, a political-science professor at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.
Khan's anticorruption message and stance against the ongoing American missile strikes from drones against terrorist suspects in Pakistan, which he calls a violation of national sovereignty, may have electrified large swaths of the young and urban middle class, but historically speaking, the latter group seldom votes in significant numbers only 35% of the country lives in cities. Parliamentary seats are won from Pakistan's rural constituencies, explains Waseem, where "Khan is up against two well-structured mainstream parties ... juggernauts with extensive vote-capturing capabilities. I can see [Khan winning] 35 seats, maximum." And while that's far short of what Khan would need to form a government, 35 seats would be an unprecedented showing for any new party in a fair election. Khan would then be well positioned to win a majority in subsequent elections. Either way, as the first relatively new name in a political cast that has changed little over the past two decades, Khan stands to shake up a system in desperate need of transformation. What's less clear, however, is what the man devoted to remaking Pakistani politics actually stands for.
At times Khan's sheer force of personality and attractiveness seem to make small matters like policy and core beliefs marginally important. He is big on populist gestures and being adored.
His first move as Prime Minister, he says, will be to close down the lavish prime-ministerial palace in favor of conducting the business of state from his hilltop bungalow. Standing on the terrace of that house and dressed in his trademark shalwar kameez a long collared tunic over loose trousers, red scarf tossed over his shoulder to ward off the late autumn chill he inhales deeply and takes in the view of Islamabad. "Thank God Jemima talked me into buying this land," he muses. Jemima, of course, is glamorous British socialite Jemima Khan, Khan's ex-wife. She designed the low-slung, unpretentious home, he explains, and while few feminine touches remain, the glamour of an international playboy's past still clings to the deep leather sofas, wide-screen TVs, plentiful mirrors and his well-groomed appearance, even immediately after a long-haul flight from California. The house betrays little sign that Khan intends to replace Jemima anytime soon; if anything, it feels more like a boys' own clubhouse, complete with hunting rifles above the fireplace and the cricket ground he keeps for his two sons, who currently live in England.
The allure of Pakistan's most eligible bachelor plays well on the electoral front as well. His rallies, which have drawn hundreds of thousands over the past year, resemble pop concerts as much as political events. The dashing good looks that made him an international pinup in the 1970s and '80s have diminished little in the ensuing years, attracting legions of fans who appear evenly split between those who want to be him and those who want to sleep with him. His face has gone leathery and lined, but he still has the physique of a much younger man.
Young men, barely old enough to remember his World Cup victory, surge the stage at the conclusion of his speeches seeking autographs while the so-called "begum brigade" purse-wielding housewives flush with Khan fever wave placards inscribed MY CAPTAIN. In Khan, Pakistanis have found a self-styled man of the people who has pledged to deliver peace, justice and an end to debilitating power outages.
But beyond those vague promises it's hard to pin him down on specific plans and policies. His pledge to abolish corruption in his first 90 days, for example, is based on the trickle-down theory of good examples rather than any sweeping legislative and judicial overhaul. Even some of his supporters acknowledge that his meteoric rise has more to do with the abysmal performance of the country's main political parties, the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) led by Zardari, the husband of slain former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, and the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) (PMLN), led by industrialist Nawaz Sharif, than any real economic plan. "It's hope, not knowledge, that makes us like Khan," says Yasir Khurshid, a 26-year-old engineer at IBM.