Pakistani cricket legend Imran Khan declared victory on Thursday in a divisive general election and said he was ready to lead the nuclear-armed nation despite a long delay in ballot counting and allegations of vote-rigging from his main opponents.
His success in Wednesday’s election is a stunning rise for an anti-corruption crusader who has spent much of his political career on the fringes of Pakistan politics but now stands on the brink of becoming the country’s prime minister.
"God has given me a chance to come to power to implement that ideology which I started 22 years ago," Khan, 65, said in a televised speech from his house near the capital Islamabad.
Supporters of jailed former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who accuse Khan of colluding with the still-powerful army, said the vote count was rigged in what it termed an assault on democracy in a country with a history of military rule.
Oxford-educated Khan, in the past a fierce critic of US policy in the region, called for "mutually beneficial" ties with Pakistan’s on-off ally the United States, and offered an olive branch to arch-foe India, saying the two nations should resolve their long-simmering dispute over Kashmir.
In a speech peppered with populist pledges, Khan promised to create jobs for the poor and said he would turn the palatial prime minister’s official residence in the capital into an education facility instead of living in it.
With about half the votes counted, Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI), or Pakistan Movement for Justice, had a wide lead in the Muslim-majority nation, the country’s election commission said.
Khan's slog from sports icon to Pakistan's likely new leader
By the force of his skills and personality, the charismatic Khan endured in the toughest job in Pakistan for a decade. As captain of the national cricket team.
His crowning glory was to drive the team to its first and only Cricket World Cup triumph in 1992. He immediately retired from Pakistan duty at age 39, opened a cancer hospital in memory of his mother two years later, and launched his political party, PTI four years later.
Today, Khan is set to become the first international cricketer in the world to be elected as a country's prime minister, considered the second toughest job in Pakistan.
"Honesty is the one word which sums up Imran Khan's whole life," Khan's long-time teammate, Javed Miandad, told The Associated Press. "Imran is a sort of a man who never gives up, and only an honest man can do this. If you are dishonest you make lots of compromises in your life, and Imran hates to do this."
In his time, Khan was the best allrounder in the game, the finest cricketer Pakistan has produced, and one of its greatest heart-throbs. He was as comfortable mixing with celebrities off the field as he was facing West Indies bats and bouncers on the field. Khan even got better with age, his second decade in the Pakistan team eclipsing his first. In his last 10 years, he averaged 50 with the bat and 19 as a fast bowler.
The Oxford graduate played 88 tests, a record 48 as captain. Under the "Lion of Pakistan," the team lost only eight times. They enjoyed historic series wins over England in England and India in India, and duelled with the great West Indies sides to draws.
Perhaps Khan's greatest legacy was to transform Pakistan cricket's modern-day fortunes, turn a mediocre side into exciting champions. There was no better example than the Cricket World Cup in Australia and New Zealand.
Khan, in his 20-year-long cricketing career that began in 1971, he was regarded as one of the world's best ever all-rounders, and a tough taskmaster who led his team to victory in the world cup. The likes of heir-apparent Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis and Inzamam-ul-Haq all played under Khan's captaincy before making big names for themselves in international cricket, and even went on to lead Pakistan. He is still known as "Kaptaan" (captain) in Pakistan.
And then, Khan decided to take the plunge into politics with zero political legacy in a country traditionally ruled by the military or dynasts.
For years, he was dismissed as a political dilettante who could not convert his personal popularity into significant seats in parliament for the PTI.
Khan started the PTI in 1996, but until 2013 it briefly held only one seat in parliament.
"It’s been a 22-year struggle for justice for the people of Pakistan," Khan told Reuters in an interview earlier this month.
But Wednesday’s election has dramatically changed that, putting the former sports star on the brink of power. Khan could join George Weah, one of Africa’s greatest footballers who took over as president of Liberia earlier this year, as the only other international sports personality to head his country’s government.
Cricketing colleagues have tall expectations from their Kaptaan
"It was in your leadership skip @ImrankhanPTI that we became world champions in 1992. It is in your leadership that we can again become a great democratic country," Akram wrote on Twitter.
Recent captain Shahid Afridi tweeted: "Pakistanis have a lot of expectations from u I really hope u lead from the front!"
Khan's never-say-die approach stood him in good stead for politics. His party won just one seat until the 2013 general elections when they won 27 seats in the National Assembly, the lower house of parliament. This time, they have won at least 119. "Slow and steady wins the race," Miandad said of Khan's 22-year struggle in politics.
"It's not easy in Pakistan to topple the big guns of politics, it needs patience and continuous struggle." Miandad believes Khan has the ability to clampdown on corruption, and will not compromise to make decisions on merit. "During his playing days, Imran was a man of principle," Miandad said. "I know him very well, he will be the same in his next innings in politics."
From Casanova to devoted Islamist, Khan's 22-year-long political struggle marks massive image transformation
Khan must have decided early on to not shun the public life after his cricketing years. After his retirement from cricket, Khan raised funds to open a cancer hospital in the memory of his mother in his native Lahore in 1994, and established his image as a philanthropist. This, as opposed to his image of a glamorous fixture of London’s high society in his younger days, who was the captain of Pakistan’s team of talented but wayward stars.
He has mostly shed the playboy image and made public shows of devotion to Islam, building a large political following in northern Pakistan, especially with the conservative Pashtun population.
Earlier this year, he married his spiritual adviser. Khan’s previous two marriages, particularly when he wed his first wife, British heiress Jemima Khan, had captivated international tabloids.
He has long left behind the image of a one-time London playboy and has since transformed himself into a pious, firebrand nationalist. The Imran Khan of today talks of improving ties with the US and India, while fortifying the all-weather friendship with China at a time when Pakistan is becoming increasingly isolated over its alleged links with Islamist militants in Afghanistan.
Khan has promised an “Islamic welfare state” and cast his campaign as a battle to topple a predatory political elite hindering development in the impoverished nation of 208 million, where the illiteracy rate hovers above 40 percent.
"Accountability will start with me, then my ministers, and then we will work our way down,” Khan said. “I want all of Pakistan to be united in this moment."
With inputs from agencies
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Updated Date: Jul 27, 2018 01:03:24 IST