ISLAMABAD — He’s a thrice-married playboy who hangs out with Mick Jagger. But he’s also an Islamist who has kept company with a cleric and spiritual adviser to many in Afghanistan’s Taliban movement.
He has denounced Washington’s intervention in Afghanistan, but also has criticized Pakistan’s turn toward China, which has invested billions of dollars in the country.
Former international cricket star Imran Khan turned to politics more than two decades ago and may be on the verge of becoming Pakistan’s next prime minister in Wednesday’s parliamentary elections.
The 65-year-old opposition leader has disparaged liberals, attacked feminism, embraced radical religious parties and vowed to uphold Pakistan’s blasphemy law. He enjoys the support of the country’s powerful military establishment, although he has been known to go his own way.
Khan has led his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party, or PTI, in widespread protests alleging ballot-rigging in the 2013 election, in which he received about 19 percent of the vote.
He also has seized on an anti-corruption message and led demonstrations against former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, demanding a criminal investigation after leaked documents from a Panama law firm revealed that Sharif and his family had undisclosed assets abroad.
Sharif was convicted in one case of corruption involving the purchase of luxury apartments in Britain and is serving a 10-year sentence while awaiting an appeal. He also has been banned from running for office.
But Khan also has drawn criticism by having his party field candidates chosen not on merit but on their likelihood to get elected — the so-called “electables.” Novelist Mohammed Hanif described in a recent column as “land-grabbers, feudal lords and rent-seekers” who know how to win at the ballot box.
Khan’s priorities will be the economy, security and foreign policy, specifically Afghanistan and how to move forward with the U.S., said Mohammad Amir Rana, executive director of the Pakistan Institute of Peace Studies.
In an earlier interview with The Associated Press, Khan said U.S. President Donald Trump’s policy on Afghanistan was “deeply flawed.” He said U.S. attacks against militants in Pakistan won’t end the protracted war in Afghanistan, now in its 17th year and the longest U.S. military engagement.
Trump “neither understands the history of Pakistan nor the character of the Afghan people,” Khan said, He criticized the U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan, saying they kill innocent people and have failed to bring success.
“Drone attacks lead to collateral damage. If (they) were such a successful strategy, they would be winning the war,” Khan said in the interview.
His critics have nicknamed him “Taliban Khan,” a reference to his earlier support for negotiations with Pakistan’s Taliban. He also has expressed admiration for the tribal system of justice that still regards women and young girls as property to resolve disputes.
Khan also has supported the blasphemy law, which urges that the death penalty be imposed on anyone found to have insulted Islam or the Prophet Muhammad. There has been widespread criticism of the law, saying it has been misused to settle personal disputes and to target minorities in Pakistan, where the mere suggestion of blasphemy can incite mob violence.
Khan enjoys almost mythical status in Pakistan after leading its cricket team to victory in the 1992 World Cup. Since then, the Oxford-educated athlete with the rugged good looks has parlayed his celebrity into a political career, founding the PTI in 1996 and espousing a message of change.
His married his first wife, wealthy British heiress Jemima Goldsmith, in 1996. They have two sons who live with Goldsmith, who has publicly supported Khan’s political ambitions and praised his skill as a leader, even after their divorce in 2004.
His second wife, Rehman Khan, divorced him within a year and has recently written a book attacking him and members of the PTI.
Khan rarely responds to the gossip that relentlessly swirls around him, and over the years has become more conservative and religious.
He married his third wife, Bushra Maneka, earlier this year after dismissing months of speculation about it. After his marriage to Maneka, also known as Pinki Pir, was disclosed in February, he said he was drawn to the mother of five’s spirituality.
Women’s rights groups loudly criticized Khan’s attacks on what he called Western feminism, saying it “degraded the role of a mother.” Pakistani women took to social media to accuse Khan of pandering to his conservative religious base.
The new prime minister will have to address Pakistan’s dire economy, including a dangerously low foreign exchange reserve, heavy debt load to China and others, and a currency that has fallen more than 20 percent recently against the U.S. dollar.
Khan has promised to create 10 million jobs and direct his efforts to Pakistan’s poor.
Rana, the political analyst, said that as prime minister, Khan would have to reach out to China, even though he has criticized Beijing’s massive construction project to link Pakistan’s Gwadar Port on the Arabian Sea to its northern border with China.
“When China’s president was visiting, Imran Khan said ‘China is not bringing prosperity in Pakistan. China is bringing another crisis,'” according to Rana.
Associated Press Writer Munir Ahmed in Islamabad contributed to this report.