'I'm quietly confident'
Pakistani cricket legend Imran Khan said he was "quietly confident" of victory in a general election this month and that as prime minister, he would drive an anti-corruption and anti-poverty campaign in the south Asian nation.
The 65-year-old opposition leader, a glamorous part of the London upper crust in his younger days, also dismissed allegations that the powerful military was working behind the scenes to favour his campaign for the July 25 poll.
Oxford-educated Khan spoke in an interview yesterday as his arch foe, ousted former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, was due to return to the country and be arrested on a conviction that was handed down by an anti-graft court last week. Much of the eastern city of Lahore, the hometown of both Khan and Sharif, was on alert for protests by Sharif's supporters.
Khan is campaigning hard on populist promises of a prosperous Pakistan that breaks away from its persistent legacy of corruption, even as he expands appeals to nationalist and religious sentiment in the nuclear-armed, Muslim nation.
As prime minister, he says he will partially model his promised anti-corruption campaign and poverty reduction programmes on China, Pakistan's traditional ally that has financed billions of dollars of infrastructure projects.
"What Pakistan has to do is follow China's example where they lift people out of poverty," Khan said in the interview in a private jet after a long night of campaigning in Punjab province.
Whoever wins the election will also have to navigate Pakistan's often-fraught relations with the United States over the US-backed government's war against Taliban militants in neighbouring Afghanistan.
"I think the longer the US troops stay there, the less the chance of there being a political settlement," Khan said. "I think the Afghans, you know, if the US. even gives a timetable of withdrawal, and then gets the Afghans on the table, and then with the neighbours also chipping in, I think that is the best chance of peace."
A victory for Khan's opposition party would mark a new political direction for Pakistan, which has been dominated by two parties - Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz and the Pakistan Peoples Party of assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto - when the military has not been in power.
More than 20 years after Khan founded his political party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (Pakistan Movement for Justice), the man still revered by many as captain of Pakistan's 1992 World Cup-winning cricket team, feels the stars have finally aligned for him.
In recent years, he has mostly shed the playboy image of his younger days, marrying his spiritual adviser earlier this year and making public shows of devotion to Islam.
His speeches are still peppered with cricket references but also have appeals to religious conservatives in the country of 208 million. And he has courted traditional power brokers with large followings in Punjab, the country's largest province that is key to any general election victory.
Khan's political fortunes were transformed last July when the Supreme Court disqualified three-time premier Sharif in a case that judges only took up when Khan threatened to paralyse the capital Islamabad with his supporters.
Sharifs dramatic homecoming
Former Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his daughter Maryam, sentenced to jail for corruption, are likely to be arrested at the Lahore airport, reports said hours before their arrival yesterday evening. Over 10,000 police officers have been posted in Lahore for what is expected to be a dramatic homecoming for the three-time prime minister who wants to mobilise his party ahead of general elections on July 25. The administration has ordered that mobile phones will be shut in the city from 3:00pm to 12:00am.
The Sharifs are likely to be arrested on the tarmac after their plane lands around 6.16;00pm local time and then flown to Islamabad by helicopter. They are likely to be taken to the Adiala jail. "I'll be taken straight to jail. But I'm doing this for people of Pak, sacrificing for generations to come. Such an opportunity won't come again. Let's build the destiny of Pakistan together," Nawaz Sharif said at the Abu Dhabi airport. Officials have said a helicopter each had been positioned at airports in Islamabad and Lahore airports for the arrest.
The government is seen to be taking all possible steps to prevent Nawaz Sharif from drawing political capital from his return and arrest. Pakistan's media regulator has ordered television channels to stop live telecast of briefings of political leaders containing "defamatory and derogatory content". The regulator claimed that "malicious and indecent content" was being aired live by television channels and sought only telecast of edited footage.
Nawaz Sharif, 68, was sentenced to 10 years in prison by a Pakistani accountability court for corrupt practices linked to his family's purchase of four London flats. He faces two more corruption cases against him following the Panama Paper scandal. Sharif wants to appeal his conviction and says he will face the jail sentence.
After the former prime minister declared that he was returning from London "despite seeing a prison cell in front of him," the police started targeting leaders of his Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, or PML-N. Police said 378 people were arrested in Lahore yesterday. The July 25 election will pit the PML-N against its main political rival, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, which is led by cricket star-turned-politician Imran Khan.
His daughter Maryam Nawaz, 44, was also convicted and sentenced to seven years in prison. Before leaving London, she called going back to Pakistan "to go to prison the most difficult decision of our lives because my mother is on the ventilator and we don't know what happens next, there is no pain like that of leaving your mother behind in such situation but there's a national duty and we must make this important journey".
A photo of Nawaz Sharif saying goodbye to his wife in hospital was tweeted by many of his supporters. One tweet described it as a picture that "will haunt many in future".