Why you should care

Because this is a critical moment for a region stressed by war.

In the 1990s, Imran Khan was on top of the world. The Oxford-educated cricket player courted supermodels, married a British heiress, hung out with Princess Diana and even captained Pakistan to its only Cricket World Cup victory in 1992. And now after two decades of competition in a new arena, the former international sex symbol may soon be on top of Pakistan, a nuclear-armed state home to more than 200 million people, as its next prime minister.

On Wednesday, with heavy turnout, tens of millions voted in a nationwide election marred by widespread allegations of election fraud and military interference as well as outbreaks of violence, including an explosion outside a ballot station in Quetta that killed more than two dozen. Initial results suggest that Khan and his party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), won more votes than the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), the party that has ruled the country for the past five years. Even if PTI does not end up with a majority, Khan will be in the driver’s seat to form a coalition government.

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British model and actress Elizabeth Hurley and Imran Khan during their 2006 visit to Pakistan after an earthquake one year earlier killed more than 75,000 people.

Source NISAR KHAN/AFP/Getty

Part of the strong turnout has been driven by Khan’s celebrity and promise of change. His face appears on signs, banners and flags nationwide. In more than two decades in politics, Khan has surfed a Donald Trump–like transition from a celebrity entertainer with a decadent past into a renegade populist conservative, one who has embraced pious Islam and been strongly critical of the U.S.

There is absolutely no chance of him governing independently of the army.

C. Christine Fair, Georgetown University

Khan has deployed his charisma and celebrity to rail against corruption — his opponent and former prime minister Nawaz Sharif was jailed for 10 years on corruption charges. Posing as the change candidate for “new Pakistan,” Khan is trying to succeed in a nation that has been ruled for decades by its military or by two political dynasties, and in which no prime minister has ever completed his or her entire five-year term.

Still, there remain several concerns about a Prime Minister Khan. Born into an affluent family in Lahore, Khan, 65, has a degree in politics, philosophy and economics from Oxford. But he has never held national office and for most of his political career he labored in the wilderness, his party managing to govern only the sparsely populated Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province. He’s even been dubbed “Imran Khan’t.”

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Khan in 1987.

Source Getty

Khan’s surge in political fortunes this year stems largely from the support of the country’s military authorities, which many claim have worked to undermine the election, muzzle the press and throw support to Khan (the opposition PML-N said Wednesday it would reject the vote count due to alleged rigging). “The elections are widely perceived as having gone through a pre-poll rigging process that was systematic and thorough,” says Kiren Chaudhry, a political scientist at the University of California, Berkeley. For his part, Khan denies being the military’s chosen puppet, though he told The New York Times: “In my opinion, it is the Pakistan Army and not an enemy army. I will carry the army with me.”

Many observers say it’s more likely that the army will carry Khan. “If Imran Khan is elected, it is solely because of the army’s shenanigans,” says C. Christine Fair, a political scientist at Georgetown University. “And there is absolutely no chance of him governing independently of the army.”

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Khan gazes out a helicopter window at a tree plantation in Bannu district on March 15, 2017.

Source FAROOQ NAEEM/AFP/Getty

How then is Khan likely to govern? He has pledged to create as many as 10 million jobs and build 5 million low-cost housing units to help boost an economy with spiraling debt and one third of the population living below the poverty line. He is also in favor of resolving the Kashmir dispute with rival India and strengthening ties with China, Pakistan’s No. 1 trading partner. Khan has also been a vocal critic of the U.S., including its drone strikes in Pakistan and war in Afghanistan. Khan has been supportive of the Taliban, as well as other militant and terrorist groups in the north of the country, in order to build support in that region. The question is whether he will still need to curry such favor once he takes power, and with the army’s full blessing.

First, though, Khan may need to form a coalition government to avoid a hung parliament, and such a coalition is likely to be a weak and pliable one, says Chaudhry, which is just what the army wants in order to more effectively divide and rule its opponents. That may result in Khan being more of a figurehead than a figure of change. “He will be the kind of PM,” predicts Chaudhry, “who reverses decisions multiple times and gets pulled and pushed by any number of forces, external and internal, but mostly the army and the ISI [Pakistan’s main intelligence agency] via the courts.”

Many in Pakistan may be celebrating Khan’s ascent, but ultimately, whoever the election victor may be, as Fair puts it, “the army always wins.”

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