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Imran Khan: From swashbuckling sportsman to righteous politician

The three-times-married cricket legend has swept to power in Pakistan. But is he more than just a prisoner of the country's military elite, asks Maija Liuhto

Supporters had gathered to dance and chant slogans outside ex-cricketer and Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party leader Imran Khan's residence in Islamabad late on Thursday afternoon, as he declared victory in a televised speech while final results of this week's dramatic general elections were still waiting to be announced.

Khan (65) is now poised to become the nuclear-armed nation's next prime minister, amid rigging accusations by all other major parties; however, he said his party would help to investigate these claims. "We will run Pakistan like it has never been run before," he said.

The cricket legend has been campaigning on promises of eliminating corruption, turning Pakistan into an Islamic welfare state and ending the country's dependency on foreign loans. This has clearly resonated with a large number of Pakistanis, many of whom are hungry for change and tired of the same old parties and faces.

Arguably one of the best all-round cricketers in the history of the sport, Khan dominated the pitch in the 1970s and 1980s. His glowing career culminated in a World Cup win for Pakistan in 1992, in which he told his team to "fight like cornered tigers", sporting T-shirts of the animal as a symbol of his tenacity.

But Khan has simultaneously been heavily criticised for bringing some of these very same old parties and faces into his party's fold. He has also been accused of trying to appease Islamist parties, earning him the nickname "Taliban Khan".

So, what will PTI's win mean for the second-largest Islamic country in the world? According to Mosharraf Zaidi, a political commentator, Pakistan is "a highly divided country" and Khan would be well advised to behave in a manner that does not further aggravate the situation. But, according to Mr Zaidi, he has often been known to be "extremely petty, vindictive and off the cuff".

"Some of the results we are seeing are going to put the handbrake on a number of allegations (of vote-rigging)," he said, pointing out that some parties had been too quick to reject the outcome. PTI will now need to form a coalition, despite appearing to have won a substantial amount of seats.

Khan's supporters outside his house - many of them young Pashtuns from the country's troubled tribal areas - had high expectations of the change he had promised to bring.

"We need a leader like him, we don't want thieves, or a mafia in the form of Nawaz Sharif, or (Asif Ali) Zardari," said Saleem Afridi (32). "He has promised he will give approximately 10 million jobs to Pakistanis," added Jawad Khan (19). "He will manage. It will be a great change."

In his younger years, Khan swung between life in conservative Pakistan and the liberal West and was a flamboyant celebrity, whose romances often made the headlines. His nine-year marriage to - and then divorce from - British heiress Jemima Goldsmith was a fixture of the celebrity gossip columns until the couple split in 2004.

Khan married his third wife, Bushra Wattoo - a conservative "spiritual healer" who divorced her husband last year - in a private ceremony in Lahore in February 2018. He divorced his second wife, former BBC weather presenter Reham Khan, after just 10 months of marriage in 2015.

Some of Khan's moves over the last few years have possibly deterred some of his former supporters.

Madeeha Dogar, a 30-year-old mother from Islamabad, had been an enthusiastic supporter of Khan in the 2013 elections. Now, she says, she has changed her mind.

"He says he is anti-corruption, but all the people he has (brought) around him from other parties are people who are corrupt. My major concern is him trying to wipe out corruption from other parties and his stance against Nawaz Sharif, but he himself is doing the same thing."

Nevertheless, had she been able to travel to Islamabad from Karachi to cast her vote on Wednesday, she might still have voted for PTI: "He is the lesser of two evils."

Some have raised concerns about Khan's stance on foreign policy and a possible turn for the worse in Pakistan's relations with its neighbours and allies. In the past, he has been highly critical of the US war on terror and Pakistan's involvement in it.

But his Pashtun supporters applauded his stance. "Imran Khan was the first one to protest about drone attacks in Waziristan," Amir Khan Wazir, a 24-year-old PTI supporter from the tribal areas, said.

In his speech on Thursday, Khan called for a more balanced relationship with the US and said friendship with India was in the best interests of both countries.

Mr Zaidi does not believe there will be any major changes to Pakistan's foreign policy after Khan comes into power, although he has been known to "fly off the handle" and "be imperious at times," he said.

The country's powerful military, which has ruled over the country for almost half of its history, has been accused of backing Khan in the elections, and many had concerns about the presence of the army inside polling stations.

"If he's a puppet of the military, then Pakistan's policies, which are dominated by the military as it is, will not change," said Mr Zaidi. "If he is not a puppet of the military, then the question is: does he have fundamentally different views about foreign policy vis-a-vis the US, Afghanistan and India? In the main, it doesn't seem that he does. His views seem to be quite well aligned with the military's views."

But Khan's unpredictable behaviour will likely create hurdles for Pakistan's diplomats, according to Mr Zaidi. "There is no doubt that (they) will be tasked with cleaning up the messes of not just Imran Khan, but many other PTI leaders who make statements and do things that will need explanations," he said.

Khan has also taken some conservative stances regarding women's rights and defended the country's controversial blasphemy laws. But according to Mr Zaidi, it is not likely that Pakistan will take a more conservative turn now.

"I think there's no real substance to the fears that he is particularly more conservative or extreme than for example the PML-N and its leadership," he said.

All in all, Khan's victory was largely brought about by the 20 million new voters that had registered this time, Mr Zaidi said. "The method of registering voters changed from voluntarily registering to anybody who has a national identity card automatically being registered to vote. The vast majority of the increase in the numbers are young people," he said.

"Pakistan is an incredibly young country and will continue to be young over the next two decades."

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