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Imran Khan: from cricket hero to Pakistan leader?

June 29, 2011

Pakistani cricket legend now-turned politician Imran Khan, center in glasses, is surrounded by supporters as he arrives to lead a rally against the US drone strikes in Pakistani tribal areas, Saturday, April 23, 2011, in Peshawar, Pakistan. – AP Photo

ISLAMABAD: As an imperious all-rounder who dominated the cricket pitches he graced for more than two decades, Imran Khan exhibited a self-belief that often made Pakistan's opponents crumble.

But that lordly demeanour may not serve him as well on the political wicket as a self-proclaimed saviour of the strife-torn country, despite his status as a national hero for leading Pakistan to its only World Cup title in 1992.

Khan brims with confidence that he can solve Pakistan's myriad and devastating problems.

Striding into an interview, kitted out in tiny running shorts and drenched in sweat after an afternoon workout in 80 percent humidity, he swats away any doubts about his prospects at the ballot box.

Nuclear-armed Pakistan returned to civilian rule in 2008 after nearly a decade under military dictator Pervez Musharraf. Elections are due by 2013 at the latest.

Asked whether he would contest the next polls after boycotting the last vote, the 58-year-old was emphatic.

“Stand for election? We will sweep the election. What are you talking about – 'stand'? The next party in power is going to be Tehreek-e-Insaf,” Khan said, referring to the Movement for Justice party he founded.

“I'm taking bets with anyone. You know I played five World Cups, never did I ever tell anyone, except in the last World Cup, that we would win it,” he added at his sprawling hilltop home overlooking the capital Islamabad.

Twenty-one years on the cricket pitch, he says, honed a “killer instinct” and with Pakistan lurching from political to economic to security crisis under the fragile People's Party coalition, he believes power is within his grasp.

But Khan's party has no seats in parliament and it is criticised for lacking grassroots support and the infrastructure needed to win an election.

While Khan was long a darling of the Western media, dazzled first by his “playboy” lifestyle and then celebrity marriage to – and divorce from – British heiress Jemima Goldsmith, his reputation at home is more circumspect.

Secular commentators, Western journalists and officials also express alarm at his policies – in particular his call for an end to Pakistani military operations against the Taliban and his populist anti-Americanism.

Yet last week US pollsters Pew Research Center named Khan as the most popular politician in the country, with an approval rating of 68 percent. Pew gave President Asif Ali Zardari a miserly rating of 11 percent.

Khan says Pew's findings were a vindication of his call for an independent judiciary, his anti-corruption drive and demands for an end to the “insane” war on terror conducted by the US-allied Pakistani leadership.

“The ruling elite, just for the sake of US support and dollars, is killing its own people, paid to kill its own people. It is the most shameful part of our history,” he said.

The government, opposition and military have undoubtedly been discredited by rampant Taliban and al Qaeda-linked violence, economic meltdown, perennial political crises and the US raid against Osama bin Laden on May 2.

Khan rejects conspiracy theories that bin Laden was not killed in Abbottabad but describes his death at the hands of US Navy SEALs as “cold-blooded murder”, comparing it unfavourably to the courtroom justice meted out to the Nazis.

Khan is a man of contradictions who straddles cultural divides; the elite world of his education at Oxford University, and that lived by the masses who are drawn to his cricketing appeal and calls to tax the rich.

His recommended reading is the “brilliant” “My Life with the Taliban” by Abdul Salam Zaeef, once the Islamists' ambassador to Pakistan and later an inmate at Guantanamo Bay.

Yet Khan rubbishes any prospect of Talibanisation in Pakistan, a country he says is dominated by the mystical Sufi strand of Islam.

His solution to the semi-autonomous tribal belt, where a homegrown Taliban insurgency is concentrated and foreign militants are based, is a peace agreement.

He compares his appeal to the popularity of prime minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, who was voted in on a socialist ticket in 1970 before being hanged nine years later following a military coup.

But few share his confidence.

Veteran political analyst Hasan Askari says Khan will struggle to translate crowds into votes and will suffer for his stance on the Taliban and his name-calling of opponents.

“People in Pakistan cast their votes with a lot of considerations, and Imran's problem is that he is calling every leader a thief,” he said.