Popular cricket star-turned-politician Imran Khan is recovering in a hospital after falling some 15 feet from a forklift during a campaign rally Tuesday in Lahore, just days before historical elections in Pakistan.
The fall, captured on live television, showed Mr. Khan and five others being lifted up to a stage on the improvised elevator, when Khan and three or four of his bodyguards tumbled off. Khan was rushed to a hospital where he was treated for broken bones and given a number of stitches. Doctors say he is expected to make a full recovery but estimate that he will be bedridden for anywhere from several days to weeks, according to reports.
The incident immediately raised questions about the future of his party's campaign as Pakistan makes its first uninterrupted civilian-to-civilian transition of government. But despite having to end his campaign two days early, Khan gave no indication to reporters from his hospital bed that he was giving up. And given all the media attention, some observers say he could even benefit from the event.
"This really resonates because people like the image of a fighter, of a warrior," Mohammad Malick, a prominent Pakistani journalist, told The Guardian. "He took this terrible fall and he's recovering quickly – that's a powerful image."
Khan was an early favorite for prime minister with the youth of Pakistan, and many from the urban educated population, who saw him as a symbol for change. His campaign had lost momentum but has recently seen renewed energy among voters disenchanted with government corruption.
After winning the World Cup for Pakistan in 1992, he quit his role as the national cricket team captain and focused his efforts on philanthropy, which won him even more goodwill. In fact, the hospital where Khan is recovering is one he arranged to have built in his mother’s name. It’s one of the largest charity-based cancer treatment hospitals in the country. He also established a modern university near his hometown – and it was just as well received.
Then, in 1996 Khan formed a centrist, nationalist political party called Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), which means "the movement for justice."
He has campaigned based on a promise to abolish corruption "in 90 days" and stop US drone strikes. But his party – one of the only mainstream political parties in Pakistan that is not family-based – has struggled to gain seats in Parliament.
Khan’s star power may have helped elect him to Parliament in 2002 under Gen. Pervez Musharraf’s regime – still the only seat his party has ever gained in Parliament (172 are required to form a majority). He stayed mainly in the background until late in 2011, when he surprised everyone by holding a major public gathering in which tens of thousands of people showed up to support him.
Observers say that gathering was a game changer for Khan, as he started to attract local and international attention. Many big stalwarts of traditional parties like Shah Mehmood Qureshi, the then-foreign minister of Pakistan, quit his party and the Parliament to join Khan.
Khan has been criticized as a Taliban sympathizer for his antiwar policies and calls to have talks with the Taliban, and many think the Pakistani military may be behind his rise to prominence to create a third party in the race in a country where two traditional parties have historically dominated the Parliament. He dismisses both as labels by the opposition.
His biggest hurdle to getting his party seats in the Parliament and then getting elected will be breaking the ruling elites’ hold in the rural areas, which make up more than 70 percent of Pakistan and where he is not popular. Nevertheless, observers feel he may have a good chance at becoming a significant third force to watch. The added press and request for interviews following Khan's fall could also help get sympathy for his party and boost voter turnout, which The Guardian reports could benefit Khan more than Nawaz Sharif, the head of his faction of the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) and front-runner.
A poll published by the political magazine Herald on Wednesday showed the PTI and PML-N were virtually tied, with the latter leading by less than a percentage point among the 1,285 people surveyed.
Khan could have a shot at becoming prime minister, Jonah Blank of the think tank RAND Corp. told a press conference recently, as a figure most parties could find least objectionable.
Khan’s hospitalization came the same day multiple blasts targeting election rallies killed at least 20 people. Since April more than 70 have been killed in election-related violence.