Former cricket star
swept to power in a disputed Pakistani election, upending the political landscape in a fragile democracy that now stands to be led by a sharp critic of the U.S.
The scale of victory far exceeded expert predictions, based on near-final vote counts in much-delayed results from Wednesday’s election, which will likely allow his party to form a government on its own and to appoint him prime minister.
But his win, which many of his rivals denounced as being marred by irregularities and help from the powerful military, also involved political compromises that critics say could undercut his ambitious agenda.
“I will prove that we can fix our governance system,” Mr. Khan said in his victory speech on Thursday. “All our policies will be aimed to help the weakest members of our society.”
Mr. Khan called for a new, “mutually beneficial,” relationship with the U.S. that breaks with the antiterrorism partnership seen since 2001.
“Unfortunately up to now, our relationship has been one-way. America pays Pakistan for fighting its war, which has really damaged Pakistan,” he said.
Mr. Khan has said U.S. soldiers must leave Afghanistan as there is no military solution there. Washington may also be moving toward direct peace talks with the Taliban, and it will find Mr. Khan’s government helpful for exiting Afghanistan, the party says.
However, if the Trump administration continues with the policy, announced last year, of an enhanced military presence in Afghanistan, it could find Mr. Khan to be a stubborn thorn.
Washington considers Islamabad’s help vital in stabilizing Afghanistan, and U.S. military supply lines also pass through Pakistan. In addition, he is an implacable opponent of U.S. drone strikes inside Pakistan.
A U.S. official said it welcomes an opportunity to work with Pakistan’s new government “to advance our goals of security, stability, and prosperity in South Asia.”
Mr. Khan also said Pakistan is “ready for talks” with India, long Pakistan’s main adversary in a nuclear-armed standoff.
“If they take one step toward us, we will take two steps toward them,” he said.
In addition to the central government, the party also appeared to be headed for control of two of Pakistan’s four provinces, up from one and including the powerful home province of Mr. Khan’s main rival in the election, former Prime Minister
The two established political parties—Mr. Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-N and the Pakistan Peoples Party—and a number of smaller parties alleged vote counts were taking place in secret, with their representatives locked out—in some cases by soldiers posted at the polling stations.
The official election commission said the ballot was “100% fair and transparent” and problems with its computer system delayed results. Mr. Khan said he would cooperate with any investigations, but called it Pakistan’s cleanest-ever election.
Mr. Khan appeals particularly to younger and more educated voters, in a country where 64% of the population is under the age of 29.
He has pledged to rebuild Pakistan’s crumbling health, education and other public services, to end corruption and to get people to pay their taxes. Those are deep-seated problems that have held back the country from achieving the economic development seen elsewhere in Asia in recent decades.
Mr. Khan also faces a grave economic situation. Pakistan’s foreign-currency reserves are at anemic levels and debt is ballooning. Many experts believe brakes will have to be put on the economy to stop sucking in so many imports, which could undermine his pledge to create 10 million jobs.
Now aged 65, Mr. Khan entered politics 22 years ago, after a glamorous cricket career that took Pakistan to a World Cup victory in 1992. For most of that time, his hero status didn’t translate into votes for his party.
After making a strong showing in 2013 but falling far short of victory, Mr. Khan’s party decided that its core white-collar support just wasn’t big enough to get it to power. In this election, it turned to traditional politicians, known as electables, who wield patronage to cultivate support. That allowed the party to reach new voters, even as it brought into the fold politicians who were hardly known for their zeal for change.
Critics say the electables could be hurdles to policy overhauls—for instance, Mr. Khan’s wish to take control of the police and funds for development projects out of the hands of lawmakers.
“The electables are albatrosses around Imran Khan’s neck,” said
a retired brigadier who was formerly the party’s defense spokesman. “They are too sharp for him. He’s a simple, straight guy, and they have already led him in the wrong direction.”
He also will have to contend with widespread allegations that the powerful military supported him in the weeks leading up to the vote, in an effort to derail the re-election of the party of Mr. Sharif, who clashed with the army during his time in office and was jailed for corruption this month.
Mr. Khan’s party has repeatedly denied it received help from the military, and the military, which has ruled the country for nearly half its history, has repeatedly denied it provided any.
Mr. Khan’s aides say his program won’t be stalled.
“Imran Khan is very clear about what he wants to do, and if your framework is clear you can make decisions,” said
a senior member of Mr. Khan’s Tehreek-e-Insaf party, who was re-elected from the eastern city of Lahore. “Imran will not be blackmailed. The core agenda of the party will not be dictated by electables.”
After a playboy lifestyle as a cricketer and then retirement from sport in the early 1990s, Mr. Khan went on a spiritual journey, becoming more religious and believing he must do something good for his country. He raised charitable funds to build a cancer hospital. Then he formed his own political party.
Friends say he remains a moderate Muslim, though more conservative traits seemed evident in his choice for his third marriage, this year, to his spiritual adviser, who covers herself in an all-enveloping burqa—the public has never seen her face.
That professed religiosity—which plays well with voters in a conservative country—was thrown into question by a book released just before this election by his second wife,
from whom he was divorced in 2015. It contained lurid tales of Mr. Khan’s promiscuity and drug use. However, the book, which his party says contains fabrications and false allegations, didn’t make a big impact on the election campaign.
“It’s an incredible lesson in tenacity, belief & refusal to accept defeat,” his first wife, British heiress
who witnessed Mr. Khan’s early political failures, said in a tweet on Thursday. “The challenge now is to remember why he entered politics in the first place.”