Behind the Story: TIME’s Aryn Baker Discusses Imran Khan’s Chances of Becoming Pakistan’s Prime Minister

As Pakistan prepares for a spring election, TIME’s Aryn Baker talks about whether former cricketer Imran Khan has the makings of a leader

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Opinion polls in Pakistan consistently show that Imran Khan, the former captain of his country’s cricket team, is by far the most popular politician in Pakistan. Frustratingly for Khan and his supporters, it is not popular support that matters in Pakistan’s political system but patronage and feudal power. But even though most political analysts say Khan’s popularity will be almost impossible to turn into real political power, the charismatic leader of a party that currently has no seats in parliament believes his populist message and appeal to middle-class and young voters will help him and his party overcome entrenched voting blocs. He is convinced that he will win a parliamentary majority—and the position of Prime Minister—in next year’s elections.

TIME’s Middle East bureau chief Aryn Baker, who covers both Pakistan and Afghanistan, interviewed Khan for her magazine story on the sporting hero who believes his greatest glories lie ahead of him. TIME spoke with Baker to get the story behind the story.

(TIME COVER STORY: Imran Khan’s Game Plan)

If Imran Khan is, as you say in the article, a “long shot,” what drew you to profiling him?
He is a long shot but he is also pretty compelling–he has international stature as a cricket star and was married to this drop-dead gorgeous socialite. There is that side of him, and then there is that part of why he is a long shot that is so revealing about the way the Pakistani political system works. It is not based on popularity. He would win by a landslide if it were based on his popularity. He is an unmitigated hero because he brought Pakistan the Cricket World Cup in 1992. Politics in Pakistan does not work that way, however; it is much more of a “what can you get for me” culture, what you can do for individuals in each village. He is also one of those people as a journalist you want to talk to because he is so quotable, he is likely to say something off-kilter.

He seems very willing to engage with international media, but what about with the local media, many of whom have derided or openly mocked him?
When I interviewed him the first time, earlier this year, there were journalists lined up behind me and there were three or four photographers trying to take his photo. He likes attention. Even back in 2007 and 2008 when I saw him he had a kind of open house; anyone could go to his office and speak to him. He likes to have his voice heard, he is very active on Twitter, more so than any other Pakistani politician.

However, a lot of the English-language media see him as a kind of dumb jock. He’s similar to Reagan in that way; Reagan was kind of a dumb jock too but he was an effective politician partly because he seems to have known his weaknesses and surrounded himself with competent people. Khan has good technocrats for dealing with the media, his economic policies, his energy policy and so on. He has street smarts, but you cannot be an intellectual and an idealist at the same time.

(VIDEO: 10 Questions for Imran Khan)

How does his international reputation–for example he made the TIME 100 list this year–play out in Pakistan? Does that work in his favor?
I think Pakistanis like that they are getting attention for something other than terrorism and corrupt politics. He doesn’t appeal to the English-speaking class–they are terrified of him and regard him as somewhat of an apologist for the Taliban. The middle-class voters love him however because of his rhetoric about wanting to take America to an international tribune for drone attacks; they want politicians to stand up to the U.S. He is quite popular in the Urdu media, which is more representative of the middle class.

Given his many statements against U.S. drone strikes and his criticism of U.S. policy in Pakistan, what kind of relationship does he envisage he will have with the United States if he did come to power?
I don’t get the sense that he’s really thought that through. He uses very populist sentiments. I was sitting on a conference call with him and a moderator suggested that he sounded anti-American, to which he responded, no, you can’t be anti-geography. He said he is anti-drone-strikes. But he never takes these arguments further; he never takes it a step beyond to address the complexity of what is involved.

He once said to me that he believes Pakistan needs to stop receiving U.S. aid, that it is a crutch. It stood out to me as a clear illustration of the extent to which he does not think things through. There is no way Pakistan could survive at the moment without American aid, but he just thinks it is getting in the way of figuring out how they will stand up on their own.

Have you been to any of his rallies? What is the atmosphere like?
It’s like a pop concert; people are thrilled and energized to be there. A lot of political parties traditionally bus in supporters; they give them a little lunch box, and it’s all part of the political theater. But at Imran Khan’s rallies people seem to show up on their own, they want to be there. These aren’t the people you usually see at rallies—from the countryside—they are well dressed and have come there to have a good time, to talk to people of the same mind-set. There’s a different kind of energy there.

What struck you most about the supporters of his that you met?
I think there is such a hunger in Pakistan for a hero, for a new face. People believe it will bring in a new political system. They have a hunger for change and believe in the idea that change in itself will fix the country. When I asked his supporters about this, asking what they thought of his undeveloped policies, their response was that it didn’t matter, what’s most important is change.

(LIST: Should Imran Khan Have Made the TIME 100 of 2012?)

What do you think his chances are in the elections next year?
He is very charismatic—that is something that should be remarked on. He is the only politician in Pakistan who has the ability to engage with voters on a personal level. There are no other politicians there who are able to do that. But the system is stacked against him. There are two or three parties who have entrenched themselves in power. If he does well he could get enough seats to build some momentum, which could eventually bring enough representatives who are then able to put in the elbow grease to deliver at the village level. Once his party has been in parliament in significant numbers for long enough, maybe in a few years, then he can perhaps do well in the next election.

MORE: Could Pakistan Have an Egypt-Style Revolution?

113 comments
MuzammilAkram
MuzammilAkram

2012 elections are near. Paikstan Tehreek i Insaaf might get majority if they give tickets to best canidates.

eman_qureshi
eman_qureshi

@ansi89 inshALLAH

ansi89
ansi89

@eman_qureshi how r u lost log? :P

eman_qureshi
eman_qureshi

@ansi89 Hehe..i will b goin to kuwait on 20th inshALLAH :) u say

ManzoorAliKhan
ManzoorAliKhan

I think Pakistan has become a two party state-Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and Pakistan Muslim League, (N) like the US where they have Democratic and Republican . Imran Khan's party may make some dent in popularity of these two national parties, it will not be able to emerge as a majority party.

Indusonian
Indusonian

There is a reason why my 78 years old mother prays special namaz (nafils) for IK to be the next PM.  Vote for PTI to build a new Pakistan.  Long live Pakistan.

FezIslamabad-Karachi
FezIslamabad-Karachi

As a die hard Imran Khan supporter, I want him to win and this time around everyone and anyone with brains in Pakistan will vote for him. If he can get even 30-40 seats (I hope much more) then he can build enough momentum to get a majority in the following elections. He's the only way forward though I hope he gets tough with the taliban.And to correct Ms Baker -- The "English speaking class" is very much behind Imran Khan. Only the corrupt elite who're benefiting from the current political parties are probably not.

Hashmizazai
Hashmizazai

Pakistan will have a great leader Imran as next prime minister!

This dream will become reality!

Hashmizazai
Hashmizazai

Thought provoking article touching real paradigms of politics!!

BolloSuch
BolloSuch

Some questions are not understandable by reporters because he himself sound low in intellect.What is his policies,they are very clear, represented, prepared by his best professional certified, authentic genuine team,which no other party have presented yet.He is not Anti any nation or people as whole except illegal criminal western policies of war against other nation and occupation without any legitimate reason,you can't explain better then that,if you really need example Al-qeida is known as Anti-west or American war of terror is clearly perceived as Anti-Muslims or Islam.He refused American Aid and without Aid Pakistan Can't survive is nothing more then a myth.1.5 billion annual charity have caused,according to puppet Government own figures more then 80 billion loss in war against terror,so get you statistic right or  stop this stupid myth.His supporters have no idea,they just want change,yes they have better idea then any one,mostly young people grown up already seeing ugly incompetent,corrupt and liar faces,so they have idea which you can't comprehend in your imaginary stupid ideas.

rulers_here
rulers_here

I'll be ashamed as a Pakistani if we don't elect this man.

DesireVikram
DesireVikram

@TIME @TIMEWorld Imran's quest is impressive but Pakistan's divided house is enough to put a hole in boat itself.

Shahid
Shahid

After Muhammad Ali Jinnah Pkistan has got a great leader Imran Khan. I have no doubt that he will sweep the next elections and Pakistan will be on the path of progress in every sector.

ad80
ad80

@TIME @TIMEWorld people might vote fir Imran Khan for what they think he is. & he is engaging in selling dreams (khwab-faroshti in urdu)

Indusonian
Indusonian

I am going to buy this edition definitely, vote for PTI to build a new Pakistan to get rid off greedy blood sucking families who have sucked the life out of each Pakistani soul.  One of the family members belonging to this disgusted coalition of families has even edited his family name merely for political gains - what a shallow mindset.  IK is a miracle for Pakistan, the first miracle was Sir. M. A. Jinnah as Time Magazine has witnessed also.  Vote for PTI, long live Pakistan.

AamShehree
AamShehree

Imran Khan is the next Prime Minister of Pakistan ........ guaranteed 

Indusonian
Indusonian

I am going to buy this edition definitely, vote for PTI to build a new Pakistan and get rid off greedy blood sucking families.

chali
chali

garibo ki pehchan

imran khan imran khan

chali
chali

koon bachai ga pakistan

imran khan imran khan

chali
chali

IMRAN KHAN IS A HONEST PERSON

LOVE YOU BROTHER IMRAN KHAN

NomanNawaz
NomanNawaz

Yes he will and only he will our PM . . . no one else is like to be our Pakistan PM others are killer and theft peoples. . . 

UsamaHamdani
UsamaHamdani

@sohaib_nehal @pklion01 @sanaraheem this is actually interview of IK's iterviewer! Original story will be in 10-17th Dec issue

kna872
kna872

He has over shot I think both in media and off media. PMLN is benefiting from it now. While Imran khan was busy conjuring up the support in public, Noora and Co were learning how to appear on Media. they are choosing their appearances wisely. Imran needs to mobilise sleepy youth that is so desperate that it doesnt see beyond a laptop. Knock on door campaigns have to be started. Also, too many promises would only disappoint eventually. PMLN are playing their cards right, intelligent campaign is the only way out. There is a lot of room for technology usage. Asad Umar, what a find!!!!

sarimrashid
sarimrashid

@DrFouziaSadiq shahbaz sharif kabhi aya times k cover per? :p

DrFouziaSadiq
DrFouziaSadiq

@sarimrashid Cricketer a saktay hein, malakhary wala shaid nahi :)

sarimrashid
sarimrashid

@DrFouziaSadiq but mein ney aap ko shahbaz sharif sey bud zan ker k chorna hai :p

vivashabazz8578
vivashabazz8578

@sarimrashid RT and please Follow! @nLoGProductions @dimesandsway @BryBeats @SherazAli they FollowBack! #TeamFollowBack

DrFouziaSadiq
DrFouziaSadiq

@sarimrashid Good luck with studies. More imp than anything.

sarimrashid
sarimrashid

@DrFouziaSadiq i hate these studies these days, elections aa rahey nd mjhy perhna perhta :( And i dsrve a follow back from u :p

DrFouziaSadiq
DrFouziaSadiq

@sarimrashid koi masla nahi. Now take some rest if you like to get fit like immy :)

sarimrashid
sarimrashid

@DrFouziaSadiq bt kashf baith kr kahey ga tou neg. Point hota

DrFouziaSadiq
DrFouziaSadiq

@sarimrashid tbh IK should seriously stick to the ground for Gen election campaign. Kashif waghaira doesn't matter :)

sarimrashid
sarimrashid

@DrFouziaSadiq imran has boycotted kashif abbasi programme. And this is very sad. Ask him if you have contact that dont do this.

DrFouziaSadiq
DrFouziaSadiq

@sarimrashid otherwise, one can anticipate ....,,

DrFouziaSadiq
DrFouziaSadiq

@sarimrashid Bhai Jo bhi hakoomat me hota he criticism ko face karta he. I just pray that we are able to deliver in 90 d as committed

sarimrashid
sarimrashid

@DrFouziaSadiq and nawaz sharif aaj announce kr dy k shahbaz would be the prime minister, he would gain more votes. Shahbaz ko log krty like

DrFouziaSadiq
DrFouziaSadiq

@sarimrashid Exactly! Besides we are educated, there should be a clear difference in our attitude compared to them

sarimrashid
sarimrashid

@DrFouziaSadiq 5 saal mein 1 acha kaam kiya hai tou baaki saarey system Ki tabahi ker k bhi rekh dee hai.

sarimrashid
sarimrashid

@DrFouziaSadiq good things are not mentioned. Bad things are criticized to make them good. Thats how criticism works.

DrFouziaSadiq
DrFouziaSadiq

@sarimrashid tu karain na criticise usko, Kis ne Roka he? My point is appreciate right thing, grill wrong

sarimrashid
sarimrashid

@DrFouziaSadiq tawk tameez sy. Sb berhy hain yeh hamarey sy.

sarimrashid
sarimrashid

@DrFouziaSadiq meri tou abid sher ali ney abhi trolling shuru ker dee thee bt still i rplied wid tameez. They are elder to us all, we shud

DrFouziaSadiq
DrFouziaSadiq

@sarimrashid isi leya aap SE dengue per discussion ke he warna nahanjaroon SE Baat nahi karti ;)

sarimrashid
sarimrashid

@DrFouziaSadiq tou kiya hai na appreciate, bt 5 years mein one dengue and okay 2nd lahore roads. What else?

sarimrashid
sarimrashid

@DrFouziaSadiq yeh youth ki aadat hai, jazbaati hotey naujawan. I never harrassed anyone

DrFouziaSadiq
DrFouziaSadiq

@sarimrashid indeed it's a national cause, my point again

sarimrashid
sarimrashid

@DrFouziaSadiq kiya hai appreciate. Sb ney kiya hai. And he could not have done it if people did not co operate. But still we appreciate it

DrFouziaSadiq
DrFouziaSadiq

@sarimrashid however there should be respect element in all criticism unlike pti troll who harassed me on twitter.One thing I openly condemn

DrFouziaSadiq
DrFouziaSadiq

@sarimrashid This is what I said, appreciate national cause of opposition and criticise laptop or whatever useless policies by all means

sarimrashid
sarimrashid

@DrFouziaSadiq this was the work of Commissioner lahore or lahore mayor. Cm ki duties are much more than these .

sarimrashid
sarimrashid

@DrFouziaSadiq dengue per tou maantey hain sb k he did good work. Even pti accepts it. But he is cm. Not a dengue or roads minister

DrFouziaSadiq
DrFouziaSadiq

@sarimrashid One shd be positive n appreciate good steps of position also as far as national causes r concerned.

DrFouziaSadiq
DrFouziaSadiq

@sarimrashid His surveillance is world class. Mossies r difficult to eradicate otherwise we wd have observed malaria free world

DrFouziaSadiq
DrFouziaSadiq

@sarimrashid now look in ur neighbouring countries. There's mossies, even we had cases in Greece where DENV had been eradicated decades ago

sarimrashid
sarimrashid

@DrFouziaSadiq mein sb maan raha hun, dengue mein shahbaz did good work. But after damage. He could have done this previous year too

DrFouziaSadiq
DrFouziaSadiq

@sarimrashid immunity, patient goes into h shock. Now look at the nutritional status of our population. What wd u envisage?

sarimrashid
sarimrashid

@DrFouziaSadiq isko shahbaz k saath relate karein naaa

DrFouziaSadiq
DrFouziaSadiq

@sarimrashid when a patient gets infected with a different serotype in the 2nd year and sp if the patient is elderly or child or weakened

sarimrashid
sarimrashid

@DrFouziaSadiq yaad nai aa raha, last year perha tha :(

DrFouziaSadiq
DrFouziaSadiq

@sarimrashid 2nd virus but what's the key difference second time round?

sarimrashid
sarimrashid

@DrFouziaSadiq theres whole lot of biochemistry involved in it, chances of shock are more if you get the virus 2nd time.

DrFouziaSadiq
DrFouziaSadiq

@sarimrashid how do humans get into H shock?

DrFouziaSadiq
DrFouziaSadiq

@sarimrashid first thing first. Let's address DENGUE first

DrFouziaSadiq
DrFouziaSadiq

@sarimrashid Tell me how does DENV kill a human?

sarimrashid
sarimrashid

@DrFouziaSadiq dengue per us ki sub tareef krty hain. But in our mayo, the surgical tower is stand still after pervaiz elahi..

DrFouziaSadiq
DrFouziaSadiq

@sarimrashid I work with Dengue and I know what are international standards.

sarimrashid
sarimrashid

@DrFouziaSadiq after more than 300 deaths. Same year pic happened. Now cough syrup.

DrFouziaSadiq
DrFouziaSadiq

@sarimrashid I don't see a reason why would you invest energy in this? If I say a good word ab his Dengue surveillance, is it wrong?

sarimrashid
sarimrashid

@DrFouziaSadiq malakhary?

sarimrashid
sarimrashid

@DrFouziaSadiq 3 great leaders of subcontinent, jinnah iqbal and gandhi, imran has characteristics very similar to them.