Pakistan Cricket Star Throws A Spin by Entering Politics

Khan rides his popularity, taking aim at corruption

Imran Khan is used to being in charge.

First he led Pakistan's cricket team to a World Cup victory in 1992, cementing his already high popularity as a sports star. Then he built a charity hospital in memory of his mother, a move that earned him a different kind of respect. Now he has entered politics, heading a movement against corruption. But whether he proves as smooth in the political arena as he was on the cricket pitch remains to be seen.

Certainly Mr. Khan would appear to be well placed to take advantage of widespread disillusionment with Pakistan's political establishment and its two major parties. Although his views aren't well known, he has openly criticized the nation's leadership and voiced a longing for a return to traditional Muslim values. This stance puts him most directly against the country's prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, a fellow student during their days at Oxford.

His personal ambitions are unknown, but his goal, stated last month at the launching of his tehreek-i-insaaf (social-justice) movement, is to replace a political system in which politicians "spend huge amounts of money to get into parliament and then proceed to loot the country."

Like autograph-seekers after a game, hundreds of Pakistanis are signing up to join this movement daily. This is in addition to thousands who join by mail.

Many of Khan's fans and followers see an empathy in the former cricketer that is largely lacking in the political leadership.

Khan's hospital in Lahore "is the only institution in the country where people without money are treated with respect, are treated as human beings, and they end up retaining their self esteem," says Naheed Usmani, the head of pediatric oncology at the hospital. Built with donations and charity money, the hospital is unique in providing free medical care for the nation's poorest citizens.

But building a hospital is one thing. Building a political following is another. While many critics have pointed out his political inexperience, Khan says in a Monitor interview, "The challenge [of a political career] is great, but whatever I have done in my life, I do know how to struggle, I do know how to take on challenges, and when you struggle it makes you stronger."

"Pakistan has run out choices," he adds. He says the two mainstream political leaders, Ms. Bhutto and her opponent, Nawaz Sharif, have both had opportunities to rule and have proved that they are incapable of delivering good government. Even if Bhutto and Mr. Sharif tried to bring about change, "they are stuck with people who are never going to allow them to make a change," he charges.

Successive governments since the death of military dictator Gen. Zia ul-Haq in 1987, he points out, have been riddled with charges of corruption. A loss of faith in the existing political structure has made people "desperate for a change."

Khan promises to lead a team of people who may not have had previous political experience but are experts in their chosen fields. He is due to announce his team of party leaders in a few weeks when his movement's detailed manifesto will also be made public.

Ruling politicians, including Bhutto, welcomed Khan's entry into politics, saying it was a sign that the country's democracy has matured and more people are attracted to politics. Khan, however, has accused the government of trying to create difficulties for him, and says that Bhutto's reaction was "double talk."

"At one stage, you have the prime minister saying that 'I welcome Imran in politics.' On the other side, I have my phones tapped, I go to Islamabad [the capital] and I have two cars following me all day.... This is not democracy," he says. He also accuses the government of creating difficulties in his efforts to raise funds for the hospital by not allowing him to run ads seeking donations on Pakistan's state-controlled TV.

Ruling politicians privately say that Khan still has a long way to go, especially since he needs to build a party structure and win at least half of the 217 seats in parliament to be able to form a government. Some politicians also expect that in the run-up to the country's next elections, which are expected in about two years, Khan would be criticized for his past.

He had often attacked the Western values of upper-class Pakistanis in his newspaper columns, before his marriage to Jemima Goldsmith, a British heiress, last year. That led many of his critics to accuse him of hypocrisy for choosing a Western wife rather than marrying a Pakistani.

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