Imran Khan might become the next prime minister of Pakistan. His party is gaining momentum in the run-up to elections. For many, he is Pakistan's last hope. For others, he is an Islamist. But who is actually Imran Khan?
Imran Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) or the Movement for Justice party is gaining momentum on the established political parties - the Pakistan People's Party (PPP), which was once headed by slain former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, and the Muslim League (PML-N) of another former premier Nawaz Sharif. Khan believes a "tsunami" of support - particularly from young people - will give him a landslide historic win in the upcoming May 11 parliamentary elections.
For many Pakistanis, the 60-year-old Khan is the "last hope" for their country which is facing innumerable problems ranging from a non-functional economy to the protracted Islamist insurgency. For others, he is a right-wing politician who wants to accommodate the Taliban and other Islamists if he comes to power. But those who know about politics and the economy say that neither he nor anybody else in Pakistan has the remedy for the Islamic republic's structural problems.
A humble beginning
Pakistan's former cricket captain Imran Khan entered politics in the late 1990s, forming the PTI. Although he was loved by millions in the country as one of the greatest cricketers the country has ever produced, and more significantly, under whose leadership Pakistan won its first Cricket World Cup in 1992, Khan was never considered a serious politician, even by his ardent fans.
Prior to a huge public rally in the eastern city of Lahore in October 2011, Khan was considered a "nobody" in Pakistani politics, which is largely dominated by traditional political clans and dynasties, with mostly feudal and tribal backgrounds. Khan had held many anti-government rallies before but none of them had been that successful. Over 100,000 people had turned up to attend his first big meeting in Lahore, which even surprised his party officials.
The Taliban have named the ANP, the PPP and the MQM as its targets because of their secular credentials
So how did a person, who was doubted even by members of his own political party as a political alternative to the Bhuttos and the Sharifs, become a force to reckon with in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan? Was it because of the support of the ubiquitous Pakistani army and its Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI), as his critics claim? Or was it the relentless political campaigning that Khan has been doing for more than 16 years? Khan's supporters believe it is the latter.
"Khan's stance on corruption, terrorism and nepotism in Pakistani politics has struck a chord with the masses, which are fed up with their ruling elite. He has no corruption charges on him, no foreign assets," explains PTI activist and biotechnology expert from Islamabad, Khawar Sohail.
Support of the youth
Khan has found a following although his party is less organized than the country's other mainstream political forces, such as the former ruling party, the PPP, and the PML-N.
His 2011 Lahore rally showed that he finally managed to transform popular support into a political strength.
"It was the first time that political analysts and common people started to take him seriously," Owais Tohid, a senior journalist in Karachi, told DW.
Since that time, Khan never looked back. As Pakistan gears up to one of the most crucial elections in its 65-year-old history, Khan is successfully organizing massive public gatherings. Political observers say that this has been possible because of the youth support for Khan.
Tohid believes that the fact that Khan is supported by the Pakistani youth, who have always played a significant role in the country's politics, is quite important. They were instrumental in bringing former Pakistani prime ministers Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and her daughter Benazir Bhutto to power in 1973 and 1988 respectively.
According to the United Nations, 63 percent of the Pakistani population falls under the age of 25. Political commentators believe that no political party in Pakistan can do well in elections without the support of the youth.
But some observers also believe that Khan is backed by Pakistan's right-wing groups, in particular the military establishment, because of his "soft" stance on the Taliban and other Islamist militants. His rise in Pakistani politics, some people say, is due to his "good relations" with the ISI. The 60-year-old politician agrees with the organization's stance on matters such as Afghanistan and Pakistan's national security.
Amima Sayeed, a development researcher from Karachi, told DW that the Oxford graduate and ex-husband of the British writer and campaigner Jemima Khan, most definitely supports right-wing extremists. He has not made it secret.
When the Swat peace deal between the government and the Taliban was introduced in 2009, Imran Khan was the first politician to support it. His collaboration with the Islamic Jamaat-e-Islami party is also a proof of his right-wing agenda," she said.
Khan's recent comments against the minority Ahmadi group have also made Pakistani liberals angry. Ahmadis were declared non-Muslims in the 1970s.
"He might not sound like a religious political leader of the Jamaat-e-Islami or the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam, but his views about the region, the world, and in particular about the militant groups in Pakistan, are sympathetic if not supportive of the religious right," agreed Tohid. "He opposes military crackdown on the militants and dismisses the idea that there has been an increase in the jihadist culture in Pakistan over the years."
In several interviews with Western media, Khan has denied allegations that his party is trying to accommodate the Islamists. He has also said he wants good ties with the US and the West.
Although the Taliban have increased attacks on the liberal PPP, the ANP, and the MQM - which are unable to campaign due to the recent attacks - center-right parties like the PML-N and Khan's PTI have been spared by the Islamists. This gives leverage to the PML-N and the PTI, which are likely to secure more seats in the new parliament than others.
But that does not mean that Khan is liked by the Taliban. The Pakistani Taliban - who are against parliamentary democracy and the country's constitution - have long criticized Khan for being a "liberal" and supporter of the West. They say Khan is no different from other Pakistani politicians.
The two sides of Khan can be a balancing factor for Pakistan and its deteriorating relations with the West, particularly the US which is in the process of withdrawing its troops from Afghanistan. But Khan can prove to be a double-edged sword for the West as nobody knows which of his sides will dominate if and when he comes to power.