LAHORE: PTI chairman and cricket legend Imran Khan said he was "quietly confident" of victory in a general election this month and that as prime minister, he would drive an anti-corruption and anti-poverty campaign.
The 65-year-old opposition leader, a glamorous part of the London upper crust in his younger days, also dismissed allegations that the military was working behind the scenes to favour his campaign for the July 25 poll.
Oxford-educated Imran spoke in an interview on Friday as ousted former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, was due to return to the country and be arrested on a conviction that was handed down by an anti-graft court last week.
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Much of Lahore, the hometown of both Imran and Nawaz, was on alert for protests by Sharif's supporters. Imran is campaigning hard on populist promises of a prosperous Pakistan that breaks away from its persistent legacy of corruption, even as he expands appeals to nationalist and religious sentiment in the nuclear-armed, Muslim nation.
As prime minister, he says he will partially model his promised anti-corruption campaign and poverty reduction programmes on China, Pakistan's traditional ally that has financed billions of dollars of infrastructure projects.
"What Pakistan has to do is follow China's example where they lift people out of poverty," Imran said in the interview in a private jet after a long night of campaigning in Punjab. "And actually we have meetings with the Chinese on all the steps they took to reduce poverty."
Whoever wins the election will also have to navigate Pakistan's often-fraught relations with the United States over the US-backed government's war against Taliban militants in neighbouring Afghanistan.
Washington accuses Pakistan of not doing enough to root out Taliban militants who shelter on the Pakistani side of the border, and the Trump administration has recently cut foreign aid and applied diplomatic and financial pressure on Islamabad to try to force change.
"I think the longer the US troops stay there, the less the chance of there being a political settlement," Imran said. "I think the Afghans, you know, if the US even gives a timetable of withdrawal, and then gets the Afghans on the table, and then with the neighbours also chipping in, I think that is the best chance of peace."
A victory for Imran's opposition party would mark a new
political direction for Pakistan, which has been dominated by
the two main parties--Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz and the
Pakistan Peoples Party.
"We'll do it"
More than 20 years after Imran founded PTI, the man still revered by many as captain of Pakistan's 1992 World Cup-winning cricket team, feels the stars have finally aligned for him.
In recent years, he has mostly shed the playboy image of his younger days, marrying his spiritual adviser earlier this year and making public shows of devotion to Islam.
Supporters lined the roads leading to the three rallies Imran spoke at on Thursday night, swarming his entourage to fling rose petals as he entered each venue. His speeches are still peppered with cricket references but also have appeals to religious conservatives in the country of 208 million. And he has courted traditional power brokers with large followings in Punjab, the country's largest province that
is key to any general election victory.
Imran's political fortunes were transformed last July when
the Supreme Court disqualified three-time premier Nawaz in a
case that judges only took up when Imran threatened to paralyse
the capital Islamabad with his supporters.
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Nawaz is due to return to Pakistan on Friday to be arrested in a move that he hopes will boost his PML-N party ahead of polls, but Imran dismissed the move as futile. He also rejected increasing allegations by both the PML-N and the PPP that the country's 'establishment' is pushing politically motivated corruption cases against their leaders.
"[The] public is demanding accountability of corrupt leaders of political parties," Khan said. "Now, each time there is an attempt to hold them accountable, they all get together and start saying its anti-democratic, and in this case they are saying it's pre-poll rigging."
Imran's party has pulled ahead of others in one opinion poll
and he said of his chances in the election: "I'm quietly confident that this time we'll do it. I am hopeful, I am confident, but still, the match is not over until the last ball is bowled."
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