Elections 2024: ‘Imran not on ballot, but still on Pakistan’s mind’

ISLAMABAD: His name may not be on the ballot, but former prime minister Imran Khan will be on the country’s mind as Pakistan votes in an election this week that observers say is deeply flawed without his participation.

The former international cricket star has been given three lengthy prison sentences in under a week and been banned from politics for 10 years — officially excluding him from an election it never looked like he would be allowed to contest.

Khan enjoyed popular support when he became prime minister in 2018, but was booted from power in April 2022 by a no-confidence vote.

He then waged a risky and unprecedented campaign of defiance, but when his supporters trashed an army commander’s HQ last May after his first arrest, it was the final straw.

He was detained again, and has since fought nearly 200 court cases on charges he insists were trumped up to keep him from politics.

His party says Khan — convicted of treason, corruption and breaking Islamic law with his third marriage — is at the centre of a character assassination as the establishment tries to contain his popularity.

Faith healer Bushra Bibi, rarely seen in public, wedded Khan shortly before he was elected in 2018 after becoming his spiritual guide.

She was convicted alongside Khan of graft and failing to adhere to “iddat”, which dictates that a divorced woman must wait three months before remarrying.

Imprisoned and with his party severely hamstrung in Thursday’s vote, it would be easy to write off the charismatic 71-year-old’s political career.

Khan won cricket matches from seemingly impossible positions as national captain, and Pakistan has seen dozens of politicians sentenced to lengthy prison terms — only to be overturned when they are back in favour.

Khan remains wildly popular, but the fate of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party he founded is uncertain without him at the helm.

The performance of PTI candidates this week — who have had to stand as independents after the party was stripped of its cricket bat symbol — could be a clue as to how long Khan remains in jail.

He was voted in by millions who grew up watching him play cricket, where he excelled as an all-rounder and led the nation to World Cup victory in 1992.

PTI overturned decades of dominance by the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) — two usually feuding groups that joined forces to oust him.

Khan envisaged Pakistan becoming a welfare state modelled on the Islamic golden age of the seventh to 14th centuries, a period of cultural, economic and scientific flourishing in the Muslim world.

But he made little headway in improving Pakistan’s financial situation, with galloping inflation, crippling debt and a feeble rupee undermining economic reform.

He also went after his political opponents, with many prominent PPP and PML-N leaders jailed for corruption during his tenure. Some, including election frontrunner Nawaz Sharif, have been released or seen cases against them evaporate since Khan left power.

Rights groups decried a crackdown on media freedoms under his rule, with television news channels unofficially banned from airing his opponents’ views.

Today, with the tables turned, he faces many of the same curbs.

The Oxford-educated son of a wealthy Lahore family, Khan had a reputation as a playboy until he retired from international cricket. For years he busied himself with charity projects, raising millions to build a cancer hospital to honour his mother.

He tiptoed into politics and for years held the PTI’s only parliamentary seat.

The party grew during the military-led government of General Pervez Musharraf and the civilian government that followed, becoming a force in 2013 elections before winning a majority five years later.

Often described as impulsive and brash, Khan draws frequently on cricket analogies to describe his political battles. “I fight till the very last ball,” he said in one TV interview.

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