Imran Khan, as New Leader, Could Help Pakistan Reshape Its Image

by Jeffery Gettleman

For a nation often in the news for all the wrong reasons — suicide bombings, horrific school massacres — Pakistan has reached a turning point that could possibly alter its dysfunctional trajectory.

Imran Khan, the cricket star and A-list celebrity whose political party won this past week’s elections, could use his fame and charisma to reset Pakistan’s troubled relations with the West.

Mr. Khan also may move Pakistan much closer to the expanding sphere of China, a neighbor he has praised conspicuously as a role model.

Or Mr. Khan could simply follow the same path as many Pakistani leaders before him, supporting harsh Islamic laws and showing sympathy for militant groups, policies that have kept Pakistan isolated for years.

Still, Mr. Khan brings something new: more star power and mystique than any recent Pakistani leader and perhaps a better chance to change the country’s narrative, even though the election was widely considered tainted.

“Relatively few Pakistani leaders have won over the West,” said Michael Kugelman, deputy director for the South Asia Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington. But Khan is familiar with operating in the international world. He already has strong name recognition. He doesn’t need to be introduced.”

Oxford-educated and once married to a wealthy British woman, Mr. Khan is clearly comfortable in the highest circles of Western power brokers. He was close friends with Princess Diana. (Shortly before she died, Mr. Khan has said, he was trying to help her find a new husband.)

Still, the old Mr. Khan is not necessarily the new Mr. Khan. In recent years, he has undergone a complex metamorphosis, distancing himself from his days as a star athlete and ladies’ man. He now expresses sympathy for the Taliban and for Pakistan’s harsh blasphemy laws, which include the death penalty, positions that play well domestically.

“He’s dangerously accommodating of extremists, and anyone who knows him knows this,” said C. Christine Fair, a political scientist at Georgetown University.

The dust has hardly settled from the election, which was marred by allegations of rigging and copious evidence that Pakistan’s military interfered to help Mr. Khan win. Mr. Khan’s party trounced the others, but as of Sunday remained short of a majority in Parliament.

To become prime minister, he needs to win over independent candidates and smaller parties to build a coalition. Most analysts believe he will succeed, although it is not a sure thing.

In many ways, Pakistan is a pivotal nation. It is the world’s sixth-most populous country, with 200 million people. It is also nuclear-armed and strategically located next to India, China, Iran and Afghanistan.

For decades it has been cast in turmoil by suicide bombers, extremist groups and a nefarious spy agency that helped create the Taliban and actively supported Al Qaeda while ostensibly serving as an ally to the United States.

But many parts of the country are safer today than they were a few years ago. New malls, new schools and new Dunkin’ Donuts outlets are going up. And now Pakistan is poised to get a new global salesman.

It is widely expected that if Mr. Khan, 65, becomes prime minister, there will be an initial fascination with him as he tours the world. Most likely, he’ll visit foreign capitals and business titans, seeking help to solve Pakistan’s dire debt crisis and bring in investors. He also seems to have China in mind.

In an address to the nation last week, Mr. Khan mentioned China no fewer than seven times, praising it for lifting millions out of poverty and for fighting corruption. “God willing,” he said, “we’ll learn that from China.”

Pakistan is hurtling toward possible default and insolvency, and China has already lent it billions of dollars for new roads and railways, at discounted rates. Two days after Mr. Khan’s speech, Pakistani newspapers reported that China would lend the incoming government $2 billion more for “breathing space.”

But assuming Mr. Khan finally gets the prime minister job, he will be entering the inner sanctum with the whiff of scandal.

By all accounts his election victory was far from fair. Human rights groups, academics, Western diplomats and political analysts have said that Pakistan’s army and security services, often referred to here obliquely as “the Establishment,” systematically targeted Mr. Khan’s political rivals in the months before the election, helping him win. But the Establishment chiefs may now be kicking themselves for doing a job too well.

This article previously appeared on the New York Times