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Cricket Hero Imran Khan Led Pakistan’s Team to Victory. As a Politician, He’s Riding a Populist Wave

6 minute read

The potholed road to Imran Khan’s home in Islamabad curls for a mile up a steep hill, where the cricketer turned politician can escape the dust, fumes and backstabbing of Pakistan’s sprawling capital below. The lofty setting gives his converted farmhouse a fortresslike perch–one that hums with the energy of “a government in waiting,” Khan says.

The world once knew Khan as the Oxford-educated playboy who captained Pakistan to its only Cricket World Cup victory, in 1992, and married British heiress Jemima Goldsmith, a close friend of Princess Diana’s. But after two decades in his country’s turbulent political arena, Khan, 65, has a real shot at running the country.

On July 25, Pakistan chooses a new government in general elections. To become Prime Minister, Khan needs his Movement for Justice (PTI) party, founded in 1996, to break the stranglehold of the two main political dynasties that have been in power for decades between periods of military rule. He is running on an antigraft ticket, promising an end to the corruption that he says has led the nuclear-armed South Asian nation of 208 million to the edge of failure as a state.

Khan hopes to yoke public anger after last year’s ouster of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif for corruption. Riding a wave of social-media outrage, he successfully petitioned the Supreme Court to disqualify Sharif from politics. “It’s a big victory,” Khan says. “But the struggle is now on. The corrupt political elite is trying to protect itself. We have hit rock bottom. The poor are getting poorer, and a tiny number of people are getting richer.”

Pakistan’s woes are indeed grave. It has spiraling debt and a record trade deficit of $36 billion. Some 29.5% of the population lives below the poverty line, according to government data, with literacy rates at just 58%. Power shortages regularly plunge homes and factories into darkness.

Pakistan is also a key supply route–and unsteady ally–in the U.S.’s 16-year war in Afghanistan. Its military, which remains the country’s most powerful institution, nominally supports the U.S. but for reasons of its own also cultivates jihadi groups, including the Taliban.

President Trump used his first tweet of 2018 to decry the $33 billion in aid that he claimed the U.S. had “foolishly” provided to Pakistan in exchange for “nothing but lies & deceit.” He wrote, “They give safe havens to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan … No more!” He has since withheld $2 billion in security aid to Pakistan, prompting Khan to press the government to “immediately remove excessive U.S. diplomatic, nondiplomatic and intelligence personnel from Pakistan” and “deny the U.S. [ground and air communication] facilities which we were providing free of cost.”

Islamabad played down the spat. But for Khan, his nation’s role in the U.S.-led Afghanistan war has been a disaster that has cost 70,000 Pakistani lives, weakened the domestic security situation and ripped more than $100 billion from the economy.

It’s not just about economics. Anti-American rhetoric has long been a populist vote winner here. At a rally, behind razor-wire balustrades adorned with the PTI’s signature green and red bunting, a fist-pumping Khan exhorts thousands of supporters to “never be slaves” of America.

Trump has doused those nationalist embers with verbal gasoline, equating Muslims with terrorists and successfully banning citizens of five Muslim-majority nations from traveling to the U.S. “I found him very offensive, humiliating and just clueless about Islam,” says Khan. “But he did something worse: he took the lid off the Islamophobia, and it became a free-for-all.”

Despite his antipathy to long-standing U.S. policies, Khan insists he is “not anti-American.” But he is also looking to rival superpower China, which is Pakistan’s No. 1 trading partner. Islamabad is the single largest buyer of Chinese weaponry. A new $62 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor of ports, pipelines, railways and power plants is under construction to the Chinese-built Gwadar Port in Baluchistan. For Khan, burgeoning ties with Beijing are “a great opportunity.”

Khan’s own political career as opposition firebrand has now lasted longer than his career on the cricket field. Born in 1952 to an affluent Pashtun family in Lahore, the capital of the Punjab province, Khan went on to study politics, philosophy and economics at Oxford University.

It was in the U.K. that he first played cricket for Pakistan, at age 18. Adept with both bat and ball, he is credited for turning his nation into an international cricketing force. “Cricket captaincy strengthened me to take pressure,” says Khan. “You have to make moment-to-moment decisions.”

The greatest obstacle to Khan’s political career has perhaps been his personal life. After nine years of marriage, he and Jemima Khan–who had converted to Islam for their wedding–divorced in 2004. (The couple’s two sons live in London with their mother.) Khan’s second marriage, to British-Pakistani journalist Reham Khan, in 2015 lasted only months. In February, he married his “spiritual guide,” Bushra Maneka.

Khan may have spent his earlier years carousing with supermodels under the paparazzi glare of London’s nightclubs, but the debonair playboy has had to grow up. “Politics here is not normal,” he says. “In England, it’s a piece of cake. In America, it’s pretty easy. But here you are up against mafias. There is physical danger.”

The question now is what a victory for Khan might mean for U.S. security interests. “The roots of all terrorist movements are in politics, never in religion,” Khan says carefully, fingering a string of Islamic prayer beads. But many have criticized him for not being tough enough on the Pakistan Taliban. The group’s 2014 massacre at a school in Peshawar–killing 149, including 132 children–was condemned even by the Afghan Taliban. Khan still called for talks. Asked in 2016 whether Osama bin Laden was a terrorist, he declined to comment. Critics have nicknamed him Taliban Khan.

Despite Khan’s courting of the hard-liners, his chances of victory appear slim. A Gallup poll in May gave Sharif’s former party a 13-point lead over the PTI. Still, Khan is enjoying broader support today than in the 2013 election, when the PTI came in third–largely thanks to the military, which loathes the Sharif political machine and has adopted strong-arm tactics to boost Khan’s leadership bid.

“PTI will certainly be a force to be reckoned with in the election,” says Michael Kugelman, a South Asia expert at the Woodrow Wilson Center. “Khan has been able to project himself, accurately in my view, as an incorruptible new type of politician who doesn’t have ties to special interests.”

Khan also takes solace in the fact that opinion polls can be misleading–as the U.S. discovered in 2016. Indeed, his tirades against the establishment, his showbiz charisma and his volcanic use of social media have drawn comparisons with the current occupant of the White House. Is he simply a Pakistani Trump? “Compare me to Bernie Sanders,” Khan says, laughing. “I’m the opposite of Donald Trump.”

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Write to Charlie Campbell / Islamabad at charlie.campbell@time.com