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article imageImran Khan, playboy Pakistan cricket hero turned election victor

By AFP     Jul 27, 2018 in World

Imran Khan was catapulted to global fame as a World Cup cricket champion, but the man known in the West as a celebrity playboy won Pakistan's election as a populist, religiously devout, anti-corruption reformist.

The cricket World Cup winner is on the brink of becoming Pakistan's new prime minister after his Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) party won the most seats in Wednesday's election.

He fell short of an overall majority, however, and will have to form a coalition with independents and smaller parties if he is to become Pakistan's leader, two decades after he entered politics.

In a speech claiming victory Thursday Khan struck a conciliatory tone following the acrimonious election, vowing to build a "humanitarian state" and tackle corruption that has been "eating our country like a cancer".

Khan's victory is coloured by allegations that the electoral playing field was fixed for the erstwhile fast bowler by the powerful military -- an accusation he and the army deny.

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 film producer and activist Jemima Goldsmith, then a university student.

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, he married his spiritual advisor Bushra Maneka, with wedding photos showing the new bride clad in an ultra-conservative veil -- an astronomical departure from his days plastered in the British tabloids.

Khan has raised eyebrows by increasingly catering to religious hardliners  spurring fears his leader...
Khan has raised eyebrows by increasingly catering to religious hardliners, spurring fears his leadership could embolden extremists
ARIF ALI, AFP

And just last month he roused the ire of women after saying feminism has "degraded the role of a mother".

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.

But to his legions of fans, he is uncorrupted and generous, spending his years off the pitch building hospitals and a university.

"Imran is honest. He is a cool leader," Ammar Haider, 20, told AFP after voting for PTI.

- 'End the hatred' -

Khan entered Pakistan's chaotic politics in 1996 promising to fight graft.

For his first decade and a half as a politician he sputtered, with 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 Pakistanis who grew up idolising Khan as a cricket icon reaching voting age.

Khan 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 PTI ran a nationwide campaign including areas far from its northwestern and urban strongholds.

Polls showed PTI's popularity climbing nationally going into the crunch vote while the outgoing Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) limped into the contest, complaining this was the result of military pressure.

Analyst Ayesha Siddiqa said Khan may have tapped into anger among Pakistan's growing middle class.

"Remember they grew up on this narrative of a corrupt Pakistan being damaged and needing a new leadership... In all this hue and cry, we didn't notice there is another Pakistan there that wanted this change," she told AFP.

Earlier this year  Khan married his spiritual advisor Bushra Maneka in a conservative ceremony  an a...
Earlier this year, Khan married his spiritual advisor Bushra Maneka in a conservative ceremony, an astronomical departure from his days plastered in the British tabloids
HANDOUT, Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf/AFP

Some fear Khan's mercurial nature is unsuited to being prime minister.

He has raised eyebrows by increasingly catering to religious hardliners, particularly over the hugely inflammatory charge of blasphemy, spurring fears his leadership could embolden extremists.

"It's hard to judge anyone when they're in opposition because the real challenge is when you take over," said journalist Arifa Noor. "On the downside he's playing up the religion card."

Khan has also been attacked for his repeated calls to hold talks with militants and for his party's alliance with Sami ul Haq, the so-called "Father of the Taliban" whose madrassas once educated Taliban stalwarts Mullah Omar and Jalaluddin Haqqani.

And earlier this month, the Al-Qaeda-linked Harkat-ul-Mujahideen announced its support for Khan's party, with pictures of the US-designated terrorist group's leader posing with PTI hopefuls posted online.

Khan, though, grabbed the best political opportunity many believed he would ever have to seize the biggest prize of the sporting icon's life.

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