Imran Khan battles conspiracies and tradition in Pakistan election

Ex-cricketer inspires passion in voters, but must overcome strange state of affairs to win office

They came to create "hawa" – or atmosphere, in Urdu. On the streets of Javed Colony in Lahore, capital of the Pakistani province of Punjab, dozens of men wave green and red flags, amid honking motorbikes, jangling pop music and fervent cries of "Long live Imran Khan". They're hoping the show of strength will convince residents to back the former cricketer in next week's general election.

Judging by reactions, many will vote for Khan, whose anti-corruption and social justice platform has attracted a broad church of supporters, ranging from religious conservatives to the so-called "burger class" of hip young urbanites. In between are the working-class voters in places like Javed, willing to take a punt on his boldly-scripted vision for a new Pakistan.

It’s a compelling narrative. But appearances can be deceptive. Especially in Pakistan, where you can never be quite sure who is pulling the strings – even if it usually turns out to be the military.

Khan is within touching distance of power. He's battled 22 years to get here, worked from the ground up to transform his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party (PTI) from political laughing stock to potential power-broker. There's promise there, but Khan has a major issue, namely the recent jailing of the man who would almost certainly have been his main rival for the position of prime minister: Nawaz Sharif of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N).


Last week, Sharif and his daughter returned to the country to serve time for their failure to explain where they got the cash to buy four swanky London pads – charges stemming from 2016’s Panama Papers leaks, which revealed the family’s hidden offshore companies and assets.

In the 2013 election, PTI won a paltry eight seats here. Khan has a lot of ground to make up if he's to win the top job

On the surface, it looks good, a triumph for a newly-emboldened judiciary bringing powerful crooks to book. But many believe the military is up to its old tricks, destroying a man who dared to rein in the power of the deep state, which has long been suspected of cultivating Islamist extremists for its own purposes.

This curious state of affairs has created some topsy-turvy scenarios. Sharif, pure as the driven snow, now viewed by many as the country’s best hope for democracy (little brother, Shehbaz, is running for office in his place). And Khan, the anti-corruption crusader, suspected of being an army stooge.

For if the military is against Sharif, many believe that this institution of political meddlers must be backing Khan. Khan is on record as saying the nation’s current army chief is pro-democracy, a claim that jars with accounts of an intensifying crackdown on the media, which recently included heavy censorship of Sharif’s martyr-like homecoming.

Main battleground

But, back to Javed, where the “hawa” is reaching fever pitch. To win the hearts and minds of the Punjab, the main battleground in this election, with a share of more than half the country’s 272 contestable seats, Khan has enlisted the support of influential business leaders, industrialists and landowners. The province has traditionally been a Sharif stronghold. In the 2013 election, PTI won a paltry eight seats here. Khan has a lot of ground to make up if he’s to win the top job.

Motorbikes are circling the crowd, the more intrepid drivers doing wheelies

One of his main assets is Walid Iqbal, grandson of national poet Muhammad Iqbal, whose rousing words inspired the minority Muslims of pre-partition India to seek self-determination in a nation of their own. Iqbal, a Harvard-educated corporate lawyer who has worked in New York, London and Moscow, is leading the brigade of party faithful down the narrow streets, dusk casting its cloak over the low brick buildings.

“Forces have gathered,” he says, viewing the gathering crowds with approval.

Aristocratic in bearing, Iqbal approaches shop owners, mechanics, tailors and chai makers, ceremoniously laying one hand on their shoulders. Most are charmed, especially when activists point out the legendary family connection.

Not Raja Zaakham, though. Waiting for a quick trim at the barber’s, the 39-year-old construction manager vows to defend the Sharifs to the last, a lone voice of dissent that momentarily silences the room. “The corruption hasn’t been proven,” he says. “Sharif has done good work here. He has built roads and infrastructure.” It’s a commonly-held view in the province, despite multiple allegations of corruption relating to public procurement contracts.

"PTI!" shouts one of the boys in the back, and the room fills with noise again. Gone are the days when leaders could treat the country like their personal fiefdom – or so the people want to believe. Pakistan needs "an honest man" like Imran Khan, says the barber. He is "kindling hope".

Outside Javed, in the neighbourhood of Punjab Society, activists march past the silent PML-N offices. One carries a massive speaker, pumping out a musical tribute to Khan by popular singer Attaullah Khan Niazi Esakhelvi. Motorbikes are circling the crowd, the more intrepid drivers doing wheelies. Imran Khan’s campaign is not short on passion. Whether that passion translates into votes remains to be seen.