ISLAMABAD : Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) Chairman Imran Khan was catapulted to global fame as a World Cup cricket champion, but the man known in the West as a celebrity playboy is now seeking to lead Pakistan as a populist, religiously devout, anti-corruption reformist.
Imran’s shot at becoming prime minister in elections on July 25 – believed to be his best chance since entering politics two decades ago – is coloured by allegations the electoral playing field is being fixed for the erstwhile fast bowler.
Imran has denied the claims and decried the venality of political elite, promising to build an “Islamic welfare state” if his party form the next government.
Recent polls show PTI’s popularity climbing nationally, while arch-rival Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party limps into the contest.
The PML-N complains this is the result of establishment pressure, with party activists calling out ‘blatant’ attempts to manipulate the polls.
Nawaz was ousted last year and has been behind bars since returning to the country earlier this month, removing Imran’s most formidable foe from the contest.
In contrast Imran has cut a relaxed image on the campaign trail, looking increasingly confident of his chances.
In the West, the man who led Pakistan’s 1992 World Cup champion cricket team is typically seen through the prism of his celebrity and memories of his high-profile romances, including a nine-year marriage to British socialite Jemima Goldsmith.
Back home the thrice-married 65-year-old cuts a more conservative persona as a devout Muslim, often carrying prayer beads and nurturing beliefs in living saints.
Earlier this year, Imran married his spiritual guide Bushra Maneka, with wedding photos showing the new bride clad in a veil – an astronomical departure from his days plastered in the British tabloids.
And just last month he roused the ire of women after saying feminism has “degraded the role of a mother”.
Imran is also described as impulsive and brash, too tolerant of militancy and fostering close links to militants. But to his legions of fans, he is uncorrupted and generous, spending his years off the pitch building hospitals and a university.
“We want change because the current system is corrupt, and we are going to have to face many difficulties,” said PTI supporter Jamil Ahmed.
Imran entered chaotic politics in 1996 promising to fight graft.
For his first decade and a half as a politician he sputtered, with the PTI never securing more than a few seats in the National Assembly.
“Sports teaches you that life is not in a straight line,” he told AFP earlier this year. “You take the knocks. You learn from your mistakes.”
In 2012 PTI’s popularity surged with hordes of young people who grew up idolising Imran as a cricket icon reaching voting age.
Imran admits his party was ill-prepared to capitalise on the gains during the 2013 election. But that was then.
“For the first time, we’ll be going into elections prepared,” he has said previously of 2018.
Five years later the PTI is running a nationwide campaign including areas far from its northwestern and urban strongholds.
To shore up its chances of winning, PTI has begun luring candidates away from Nawaz’s party, stirring controversy among long-time party loyalists who say Imran is relying on the same corrupt politicians he once denounced.
Some fear Imran’s mercurial nature is unsuited to being prime minister.
He has raised eyebrows by increasingly catering to religious hardliners spurring fears his leadership could embolden extremists.
Earlier this month, the al Qaeda-linked Harkatul Mujahideen announced their support for Imran’s party, with pictures of the US-designated terrorist group’s leader posing with PTI hopefuls posted online.
Still, many, including Imran, believe this is the best political opportunity he will ever have.
“After the 25th of July, God willing we will reunite this divided nation,” he said during a rally in Lahore days before the polls. “And end the hatred.”