Imran Khan, Pakistan’s greatest cricketing hero, has no time for doubters. This time next year, he says, he will be Prime Minister of Pakistan. The corruption that plagues the country will be no more. Extremism will be on the wane, and the economy, now comatose, will be booming. Mid-soliloquy Khan notices a raised eyebrow – few in Pakistan think he has any realistic chance of winning the upcoming election, let alone performing such post-election miracles.

A recent Pew Global Attitudes Project poll gave him a 70% approval rating, compared with 36% for the then Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani and 14% for President Asif Ali Zardari – political analysts and pollsters say he would be lucky to get 20 to 40 seats in the next election. That’s largely because Pakistan’s entrenched patronage networks and lingering feudal system have always firmly steered the rural vote in favor of the established parties-leaving little chance for Khan’s party in much of the country. “Popularity doesn’t necessarily translate into electoral success,” says Mohammad Waseem, a political-science professor at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.

Khan’s anticorruption message and stance against the ongoing American missile strikes from drones against terrorist suspects in Pakistan, which he calls a violation of national sovereignty, may have electrified large swaths of the young and urban middle class, but historically speaking, the latter group seldom votes in significant numbers-only 350/0 of the country lives in cities. Parliamentary seats are won from Pakistan’s rural constituencies, explains Waseem, where “Khan is up against two well-structured mainstream parties... juggernauts with extensive vote-capturing capabilities. I can see [Khan winning] 35 seats, maximum.”

And while that’s far short of what Khan would need to form a government, 35 seats would be an unprecedented showing for any new party in a fair election. Khan would then be well positioned to win a majority in subsequent elections. Either way, as the first relatively new name in a political cast that has changed little over the past two decades, Khan stands to shake up a system in desperate need of transformation. What’s less clear, however, is what the man devoted to remaking Pakistani politics actually stands for.

Mr Right?

At times Khan’s Sheer Force of personality and attractiveness seem to make small matters like policy and core beliefs marginally important. He is big on populist gestures – and being adored.

His first move as Prime Minister, he says, will be to close down the lavish prime-ministerial palace in favor of conducting the business of state from his hilltop bungalow.

Beneath the Surface

If Pakistanis made their electoral decisions based purely on how antiestablishment their candidates are, Khan would be a shoo-in. He has made a career out of being a voice in the wilderness, resigning from Parliament in protest against the former military dictator Pervez Musharraf and boycotting the 2008 elections that brought the PPP into power, furious over a U.S.-backed amnesty agreement that cleared Sharif, Zardari and Bhutto from past corruption charges. Since then he has been a regular presence on television talk shows, railing against corruption, drones, tax evasion and what he calls the U.S.’s mismanaged war on terrorism in Pakistan. “By what law are drone attacks justified? Suspects are being eliminated without trial. Not just them, but their women, children and any neighbor who happens to be there. So when terrorists take revenge with a suicide attack, they justify it as ‘collateral damage,’ just like the Americans,” says Khan.

One of Khan’s biggest successes in his 16-year campaign for the prime minister-ship has been his ability to convince the middle class that he is one of them. Never mind that he shares the same privileged background as his rivals-attending Lahore’s elite Aitchison College before moving to the U.K. and later enrolling at Oxford at 19-he identifies with the suffering masses, speaking passionately about his return to Islam. He has spent some of his wealth directly on the people whose pain he insists he feels. In ~ he opened the Shaukat Khanum Memorial Cancer Hospital & Research Centre in memory of his mother, who died of cancer in 1985. The world-class facility provides free care to 750/0 of its patients and is widely considered to be one of the best-run institutions in the country. Khan’s vocal opposition to American drone attacks in the tribal areas has also won him widespread accolades from a nationalist populace growing ever more anti-American. “Whether he is a good politician, whether he is going to win, who knows,” says a former U.S. official who has known Khan for several years and requested anonymity, lest Americans be accused of supporting one candidate over the others. “The point is that anyone who wants to talk about corruption, about a future in which you get along with your neighbors, anyone who stands up to the Americans and says ‘We don’t see it this way,’ anyone who is open and honest about that deserves a place in the political firmament.”

But by bringing in old-school politicians, such as longtime PPP stalwart and former Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, who comes from an old political dynasty based in rural Punjab, and Javed Hashmi, who ran under Sharif’s PMLN in the past election, Khan has tarnished his maverick image. “We started as the party that would hold people accountable for their corruption, and now we have become a party that wants to survive and gain power, like everyone else,” says Rabia Zia, who headed PTI’s U.K. branch until she quit in protest in October. What Khan has long called his “tsunami” of change is starting to look more like a tide that ebbs and flows with the political currents. Khan, for his part, denies taking anyone on purely to boost his party’s chances. “What am I going to say, No, you can’t join my party? No, anyone can join a party.” The difference, he says, is that once they do join, they have to toe the Imran Khan line.

Muhammad Amir Rana, head of the Pak Institute for Peace Studies and one of the leading researchers on extremist groups in the country, is concerned about Khan’s lack of leadership on the issue. “He is afraid that if he takes a position against extremism it will damage his party’s interests,” says Rana. “He can’t win the election on his ideals alone, but he won’t win by pandering.” Khan rejects any suggestion that he is being soft on the extremists for electoral gain. “Oh, please,” he says. “Do you really think I am going to get votes from the Taliban? I strongly feel that Pakistan needs someone who can bring the country together.”

Khan himself believes he’ll win by reaching into a deep well of previously complacent voters. Where pundits see 44% of eligible voters going to the polls as a sign of apathy that limits Khan’s possible routes to a majority, Khan sees opportunity. All he has to do is get the other 56% to vote for him. The youth, he says, are his secret weapon. “The youth in Pakistan have made up their minds; they want change,” says Khan. “I am that change.” To reach young voters he is using the sort of get-out-the-vote tools that are now standard in the U.S. but unexploited in Pakistan. He is the only politician in the country to have used social media to engage his followers and potential supporters on a large scale: he regularly tweets campaign pledges and policy updates to his roughly 430,000 Twitter followers (nearest rival Sharif’s party has about 3,800 followers). His official Face-book page has more than half a million Likes (“Yes he Khan!” regularly shows up in the comments log); unofficial fan pages proliferate at a rapid clip.

If Pakistan’s young people do vote, and vote for Khan, he will be entirely unsurprised. “One billion people said I couldn’t win the World Cup. I did,” he says. “Doctors around the world say you can’t treat cancer victims for free. I do.” Once in power, a Prime Minister Khan who achieves even a fraction of what he has set out to do would be a genuinely transformative figure. But if Khan wins power and then fails to deliver on his promises, not only will he shatter the hopes of Pakistan’s newly politicized youth, his preference for talking to the country’s extremist groups rather than fighting them could allow them unprecedented freedom to operate. The stakes for Pakistan, and the region, could hardly be higher.

It is an edited version

-Time