Clad in a tracksuit and ankle weights, Imran Khan lounges in a plush chair and announces this is his political moment: the World Cup cricket champion believes power in Pakistan is his for the taking.
After years in the wilderness the former all-rounder is riding a wave of populism as rival parties stumble, decrying the venality of Pakistan’s political elite and promising an end to rampant corruption if he can win general elections due this year.
Often likened to U.S. President Donald Trump for his populist flair and Twitter tirades, he prefers to draw parallels with former U.S. presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders or British opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn. “It is one of the most ridiculous comparisons,” he sighs, when asked about Trump during an interview with AFP at his hillside home near Islamabad.
But despite once describing a potential meeting with the U.S. president as a “bitter pill,” Khan says he would be prepared to work with Trump to stop the “insanity” in Afghanistan. “This war will only end through talks,” he says. “The solution does not lie in more bombs and guns.”
In the West, the man who led Pakistan’s 1992 World Cup champion cricket team is typically seen through the prism of celebrity, with memories of his headline-grabbing romances and playboy reputation standing out. Back home, the 65-year-old cuts a more conservative persona as a devout Muslim, often carrying prayer beads and nurturing beliefs in living saints.
To his legions of fans, Khan is uncorrupted and generous, spending his years off the pitch building hospitals and a university. “[He] deserves a chance over all the other leeches,” says supporter Shahid Khan, a 26-year-old engineer.
But Khan is also described as impulsive and brash, too tolerant of militancy and fostering close links to Islamists, amid speculation over his ties to Pakistan’s military establishment.
Khan entered Pakistan’s chaotic politics more than two decades ago promising to fight graft and build a welfare state in the nation of over 200 million. But for his first 15 years as a politician he sputtered, his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party never securing more than a few seats in the National Assembly.
“Sports teaches you that life is not in a straight line,” he says. “You take the knocks. You learn from your mistakes.”
In 2012 PTI’s popularity surged with hordes of young Pakistanis who grew up idolizing Khan as a cricket icon reaching voting age. The wave of youth support accompanied festering dissatisfaction among the middle class with the country’s corrupt and dynastic political elite.
Khan admits his party was ill-prepared to capitalize on the gains in time for the 2013 elections. But that was then. “For the first time, we’ll be going into elections prepared,” he says of 2018.
He points to his party’s governance of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province as a blueprint for nationwide programs focusing on human development.
Rahimullah Yusufzai, a veteran journalist based in provincial capital Peshawar, says the party has done well on legislation—but implementation has been slow, as PTI grapples with inexperienced political newcomers and indiscipline. “He has been there for more than four and half years,” Yusufzai says. “People are trying to figure out, what change did he bring?”
Others fear Khan’s mercurial nature is unsuited to being prime minister.
Last month he made headlines after asking his supporters in a tweet to pray he finds “personal happiness which, except for a few years, I have been deprived of,” following still unverified claims he had married his spiritual adviser.
“Imran Khan is very, very impulsive—a trait leaders score low on,” says Harris Chaudhry, a 23-year-old student.
Detractors have also attacked Khan for his repeated calls to hold talks with militants and for his party’s alliance with Samiul Haq, the so-called Father of the Taliban whose madrassas once educated militant supremos Mullah Omar and Jalaluddin Haqqani.
Khan defends the partnership, saying Haq is instrumental to reform and helping poor students at risk of being radicalized in Pakistan’s long war on extremism.
To his opponents, he is merely latching on to a groundswell of naked populism. “Imran Khan is right now the beneficiary of a wave of celebrity politicians who are anti-politicians,” explains Husain Haqqani from the Washington-based Hudson Institute, suggesting Khan has also benefited from ties with the military, whose penchant for meddling in Pakistani politics is well known.
Still, many believe this is the best political opportunity Khan will ever have.
His arch nemesis Nawaz Sharif was ousted from the premiership in July, leaving the ruling Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) in disarray; while the once mighty Pakistan Peoples Party has wilted into a shell of its former self.
This election, Khan says, is PTI’s “biggest chance” at victory, even as doubts reverberate after his party lost a by-election this week.
But when asked if, should he lose, would he hand over the party leadership to a successor, Khan is cryptic. “I’m the only cricket captain in our history who left when he still could have been the captain,” he says.