Thu, Jul 05, 2018 - Page 9 News List

Imran Khan starts race to lead Pakistan, but can he please the umpires?

In the buildup to the election, the former cricketer has drawn wide support as well as claims that he is complicit with the military

By Memphis Barker  /  The Guardian, LAHORE, Pakistan

Illustration: Mountain People

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,” Imran Raja said.

“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.

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 last week.

Although polls show 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 would likely 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 IMF after the current-account deficit doubled this year.

An international money laundering watchdog put Pakistan back on its “gray list,” indicating insufficient efforts to combat financing of terrorism, and a financial slowdown could reduce the leeway to protect the nation 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.

However, in the eyes of his supporters 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 PML-N founder, Nawaz Sharif, and his family, who are facing trial for money laundering.

They have pleaded not guilty and deny any wrongdoing.

It was Khan’s dogged campaigning that forced the Pakistani Supreme Court to take up the “Panama Papers” case last year, a move which led to Sharif’s ousting as prime minister.

“Khan is an honest man,” said 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 buildup 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 nation’s second-largest party by votes, TV host Fasi Zaka said.

That partly 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 the election in favor of “electables,” politicians who switch parties with the wind and bring their own vote-banks — and often corruption scandals — with them.

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