Will Imran Khan Shake Up Pakistani Politics This Time?

May 10, 2013
Originally published on May 10, 2013 2:38 pm

After retiring as Pakistan's most celebrated cricket player, Imran Khan has dabbled on the margins of Pakistani politics for nearly two decades, trying to make a mark.

The sportsman turned philanthropist who led a playboy lifestyle in his younger days has attracted endless media attention, but until now neither he nor his movement has had any real impact.

As Pakistanis vote in a crucial parliamentary election on Saturday, could this time be different?

Watching Khan in the final stretch of the race is to see a man who found it impossible to stop campaigning. His critics have called him a political dilettante in the past, but he now seemed addicted to the center of the political arena as the bluejean- and T-shirt-clad youth of the country mobilized behind him and his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, or PTI, party. He has benefited as discontent with the traditional political elite has begun to boil over.

The former national cricket team captain looked supremely confident in the final weeks of the campaign, relishing the throngs of supporters and sparring with television anchors.

At age 60, Khan is still fit enough to put in six appearances a day, outpacing paunchier rivals. Sometimes he showed up for interviews drenched in sweat after a run.

So when Khan fell from an improvised forklift on Tuesday, his bodyguards losing their balance and taking him tumbling with them, it was a long hard fall that cut short his final sprint.

But as he fell, the nation rose in sympathy, signaling that his campaign has created a third force in Pakistani politics that may have changed the dynamic of Saturday's election.

Columnist Kamran Shafi wrote in the Tribune Express today that "despite the fact that I think Imran Khan will be an unmitigated disaster in a position of authority ... it was heart-stopping to see him fall from the forklift."

As doctors ordered Khan immobilized after he fractured a rib and damaged three vertebrae, he still could not resist one final appearance in the twilight of the campaign.

Via video link from his hospital bed, Khan made a last attempt to woo voters.

Millions of Pakistanis watched on TV as Khan, in a neck brace, appealed to the conservative northwest Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province to ensure that women — thousands of whom were barred from voting by political parties in the 2008 election — show up at the polling stations.

Two traditional parties have traded power, ping-pong fashion, over the years. The Pakistan Muslim League, led by two-time Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, is expected to get the most votes.

Sharif's power base is the vote-rich province of the Punjab, which controls more than half of the seats in Parliament.

The Pakistan People's Party, which was led by Benazir Bhutto before she was killed in 2007, has led the country for the past five years. Its fortunes have waned with the country's many troubles, and the PPP held no large rallies to mobilize supporters.

In his own video, Bilawal Bhutto, son of Benazir, talked of a conspiracy against his Pakistan People's Party which had been largely driven from public view because of militant threats.

Sharif, meanwhile, gave a spirited close, personally reaching out to the voters in Khan's own constituency in Lahore. He told them to eschew new experiments and vote instead for tested leadership.

Dawn Newspaper said Friday that using the "formidable machinery" of his party, Sharif "has tried to match Khan's frantic pace" and downplayed the former cricket star's late surge.

It raises the prospect of a fractured Parliament, which could lead to weeks of haggling as parties try to form a coalition government.

"A fractured mandate, a split mandate, would be worse than the last five years," Sharif said.

But as the charged campaign comes to a close, Pakistan appears to be facing its most wide open electoral contest in decades.

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