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Beneath the Surface
If Pakistanis made their electoral decisions based purely on how anti-establishment their candidates are, Khan would be a shoo-in. He has made a career out of being a voice in the wilderness, resigning from Parliament in protest against the former military dictator Pervez Musharraf and boycotting the 2008 elections that brought the PPP into power, furious over a U.S.-backed amnesty agreement that cleared Sharif, Zardari and Bhutto from past corruption charges. Since then he has been a regular presence on television talk shows, railing against corruption, drones, tax evasion and what he calls the U.S.'s mismanaged war on terrorism in Pakistan. "By what law are drone attacks justified? Suspects are being eliminated without trial. Not just them, but their women, children and any neighbor who happens to be there. So when terrorists take revenge with a suicide attack, they justify it as 'collateral damage,' just like the Americans," says Khan.
One of Khan's biggest successes in his 16-year campaign for the prime ministership has been his ability to convince the middle class that he is one of them. Never mind that he shares the same privileged background as his rivals attending Lahore's elite Aitchison College before moving to the U.K. and later enrolling at Oxford at 19 he identifies with the suffering masses, speaking passionately about his return to Islam. He has spent some of his wealth directly on the people whose pain he insists he feels. In 1994, he opened the Shaukat Khanum Memorial Cancer Hospital & Research Centre in memory of his mother, who died of cancer in 1985. The world-class facility provides free care to 75% of its patients and is widely considered to be one of the best-run institutions in the country. Khan's vocal opposition to American drone attacks in the tribal areas has also won him widespread accolades from a nationalist populace growing ever more anti-American. "Whether he is a good politician, whether he is going to win, who knows," says a former U.S. official who has known Khan for several years and requested anonymity, lest Americans be accused of supporting one candidate over the others. "The point is that anyone who wants to talk about corruption, about a future in which you get along with your neighbors, anyone who stands up to the Americans and says 'We don't see it this way,' anyone who is open and honest about that deserves a place in the political firmament."
But behind the charisma and populism seems something more troubling: a man who at best may not know quite what he believes in and at worst may be just another politician who is as willing to make compromises and do deals as any in Pakistan in order to gain power. Popular columnists in the English-language press even question whether he's savvy enough to be a plausible national leader. The Friday Times, the English weekly that derided his World Cup captaincy, now features a satirical column penned by Im the Dim, a name-dropping cricket star turned politician with grandiose dreams of becoming Prime Minister and a poor grasp of history, politics and religious extremism. "People keep asking me how I'm going to negotiate with [the Taliban]," went a recent column. "It's simple. I'll call them, and ask them what they want. Then I'll give it to them, and then they'll go away and be good till the next time they're bad."
Like all good satires, it may be based on a grain of truth. At times Khan can seem to have a loose grasp of public policy. Pakistan has one of the world's lowest tax-to-GDP ratios, and Khan says he wants to change that. Not by "raising taxes but collecting them," he says. Half a beat later, he proposes a radical overhaul of the tax code, which would, in effect, force landowners and stockholders to pay taxes on their holdings. "I am talking about an equitable, just taxation, where the rich subsidize the poor, not the other way around."
Those apparent inconsistencies might seem less important, in terms of his electability, if he had the sort of party machine that his rivals in the PPP and the PMLN use to lock up huge voting blocs in a relatively lackadaisical electorate. This is where Khan's idealism begins to run into the realities of Pakistani politics. He has decided to play the established parties at their own game by recruiting what is known in Pakistani political parlance as "electables": well-entrenched constituency politicians, who, through clan titles, ancient feudal holdings or influential religious roles, have a lock on key seats regardless of party affiliation.
But by bringing in old-school politicians, such as longtime PPP stalwart and former Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, who comes from an old political dynasty based in rural Punjab, and Javed Hashmi, who ran under Sharif's PMLN in the past election, Khan has tarnished his maverick image. "We started as the party that would hold people accountable for their corruption, and now we have become a party that wants to survive and gain power, like everyone else," says Rabia Zia, who headed PTI's U.K. branch until she quit in protest in October. What Khan has long called his "tsunami" of change is starting to look more like a tide that ebbs and flows with the political currents. Khan, for his part, denies taking anyone on purely to boost his party's chances. "What am I going to say, No, you can't join my party? No, anyone can join a party." The difference, he says, is that once they do join, they have to toe the Imran Khan line.
Khan has made himself vulnerable on another front by refusing to condemn the Pakistani Taliban, even in the wake of their attack on 15-year-old schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai in October, earning the ire of liberals who call him a Taliban apologist and the disapproval of important potential allies overseas. Khan dismisses the accusation with an angry shrug, pointing out that he was the first to the young activist's hospital bed, and then declaring in a press conference that education is a right for all Pakistani children. "What are [the Taliban] going to do, say 'Ooooh, Imran Khan condemned us' and drop their weapons? No. They will attack me, and they will attack my party members."
Muhammad Amir Rana, head of the Pak Institute for Peace Studies and one of the leading researchers on extremist groups in the country, is concerned about Khan's lack of leadership on the issue. "He is afraid that if he takes a position against extremism it will damage his party's interests," says Rana. "He can't win the election on his ideals alone, but he won't win by pandering." Khan rejects any suggestion that he is being soft on the extremists for electoral gain. "Oh, please," he says. "Do you really think I am going to get votes from the Taliban? I strongly feel that Pakistan needs someone who can bring the country together."
Khan himself believes he'll win by reaching into a deep well of previously complacent voters. Where pundits see 44% of eligible voters going to the polls as a sign of apathy that limits Khan's possible routes to a majority, Khan sees opportunity. All he has to do is get the other 56% to vote for him. The youth, he says, are his secret weapon. "The youth in Pakistan have made up their minds; they want change," says Khan. "I am that change." To reach young voters he is using the sort of get-out-the-vote tools that are now standard in the U.S. but unexploited in Pakistan. He is the only politician in the country to have used social media to engage his followers and potential supporters on a large scale: he regularly tweets campaign pledges and policy updates to his roughly 430,000 Twitter followers (nearest rival Sharif's party has about 3,800 followers). His official Facebook page has more than half a million Likes ("Yes he Khan!" regularly shows up in the comments log); unofficial fan pages proliferate at a rapid clip.
If Pakistan's young people do vote, and vote for Khan, he will be entirely unsurprised. "One billion people said I couldn't win the World Cup. I did," he says. "Doctors around the world say you can't treat cancer victims for free. I do." Once in power, a Prime Minister Khan who achieves even a fraction of what he has set out to do would be a genuinely transformative figure. But if Khan wins power and then fails to deliver on his promises, not only will he shatter the hopes of Pakistan's newly politicized youth, his preference for talking to the country's extremist groups rather than fighting them could allow them unprecedented freedom to operate. The stakes for Pakistan, and the region, could hardly be higher.
with reporting by Aoun Sahi / Islamabad