Pakistani cricket star-turned-politician and head of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) Imran Khan gestures as he delivers a speech during a political campaign rally, in Islamabad, on July 21, 2018.
CNN  — 

Former international cricket star and socialite Imran Khan is confident that a victory in Pakistan’s general elections on Wednesday will kick start a revolution for a country bedeviled by corruption and insecurity.

But while several polls put Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI, or Pakistan Justice Movement) marginally ahead – the result, his rivals allege, of covert support from the country’s powerful military establishment – other surveys suggest the result is too close to call.

Analysts are also divided over whether a win for Khan’s PTI would actually be that substantially different to a return to power for its chief rival, Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), the party of disgraced former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

Many experts contend that it will be business as usual whoever wins the election, with the military – which has ruled the country directly or indirectly for much of its 71-year history – remaining Pakistan’s de facto ruler.

Pakistan election: Who is likely to be the country’s next leader?

The three leading candidates in Pakistan's general election: Bilawal Bhutto Zardari (PPP), Shahbaz Sharif (PML-N), and Imran Khan (PTI).

Close race

Michael Kugelman, a South Asia expert at the US-based Wilson Center, said that the military remains “very much ensconced” at the upper echelons of power in Pakistan.

“It remains powerful and popular, even amid allegations of election meddling, and the most likely election outcome – a weak coalition government – is the military’s best-case scenario,” he said.

This weeks vote comes amid growing fears of renewed political instability in Pakistan as it faces a multi-billion dollar debt crisis and tilts away from the West towards China, which has granted it billions of dollars in expensive loans for infrastructure projects.

The polls have been overshadowed by terrorist attacks, hundreds of arrests and accusations of widespread interference by the military. They have also seen a massive crackdown on the media and controversy over militant groups’ electoral participation.

Imran Khan in Wazirabad, in eastern Punjab province on August 15, 2014.

Tensions increased earlier this month when Sharif was jailed for 10 years on corruption-related charges which led to his removal from office last year.

He has claimed the military is aiding a “judicial witch-hunt” to prevent the ruling PML-N – now led by his brother and election candidate Shahbaz Sharif – from winning a second term in power.

In deliberate contrast to the scandal-dogged Sharif family, Khan has campaigned for a “New Pakistan” on a reformist, anti-corruption ticket, arguing the country is clamoring for a clean, nationalist government and a clean break with the past.

The 65-year-old has batted away allegations of covert support from the military, although his cricket references to “neutral umpires” and a “level playing-field” have become fewer on the campaign trail.

“I speak to a public that understands issues like corruption and how it impacts their lives,” he said earlier this month. “They now understand (the) correlation between corruption (and) poverty, unemployment (and) inflation.”

Supporters of Pakistani cricketer turned politician Imran Khan of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (Movement for Justice), cheer as they attend an election campaign rally by Khan's ahead of the general election in Karachi on July 22, 2018.

Potential for change

Khan has pledged to break the decades-old two party “status quo” of PML-N and its historical rival, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), which is expected to finish in third place.

His campaign has caught the imaginations of young and middle-class Pakistanis. In 2013, he broke through from relative political obscurity, with PTI becoming the country’s third biggest party, taking control of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province.

Banking on his celebrity as the man who brought home the Cricket World Cup in 1992, and his philanthropic record of building hospitals that provide cancer treatment for the poor, the Oxford-educated heartthrob is now riding high.

Khan has “several faces, as a sportsman and a hero, it’s one of the reasons for his popularity – his charisma,” said journalist and author Zahid Hussain.

Some see a Khan victory in 2018 as a potential watershed moment for Pakistan.

“Since it would be the first time that the hold of the PML-N/PPP is broken, it would by definition represent a change,” said Madiha Afzal, a Brookings Institution fellow.

“Khan’s politics significantly diverges from the two parties, so his victory could signal a change in politics as usual.”

Afzal added Khan’s emphasis on anti-corruption and improving education and health services differs from the policies of the main two parties, as does his conservatism.

“He is far farther to the right than both, even the PML-N which was traditionally known as center-right,” she said.

Of particular concern to liberals has been Khan’s support for the death sentence for those convicted under Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy law and his support for legislation persecuting the country’s Ahmadis – a minority Muslim movement – as heretics.

“Khan’s policy positions – from his deep opposition to the PML-N and refusal to criticize the military to his strong support for resolving the Kashmir crisis – align sharply with those of the army,” said Kugelman, the Wilson Center analyst, referring to India and Pakistan’s long-running dispute over Kashmir.

Supporters of Shahbaz Sharif, the younger brother of ousted Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and head of Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), chant slogans and wave flags during a campaign meeting ahead of the general election in Multan on July 22, 2018.

Politics as usual?

While Khan may differ from his rivals on paper, some analysts said he may be hampered in any attempt to deliver on his agenda because of the host of weathervane politicians with questionable loyalty he has recruited.

“He will be surrounded by turncoats. How can he control these people? They have no loyalty or ideological commitment,” said Rahimullah Yusufzai, a veteran political observer.

His recruitment of “electables” has been part of his bid to crack the PML-N’s grasp on its political stronghold, Punjab, the country’s wealthiest and most populous province.

Analysts are uncertain if the gambit has paid off as the PML-N, energized by Sharif’s jailing, has drawn large crowds of supporters to rallies in the province, whereas Khan’s have been relatively muted.

It’s still unclear whether Sharif’s jailing may yet drive voters angry over Pakistan’s rampant corruption into supporting PTI.

Sharif’s jailing could benefit his party, however, with some analysts saying it could make PML-N more palatable to the military now it is controlled by his brother.

“Shahbaz has indicated that he’ll work with the military establishment; so he won’t press his hand on foreign policy or on non-state militant groups,” said Afzal of Brookings.

As chief minister of Punjab province, Shahbaz Sharif won plaudits as an administrator, in particular for developing infrastructure. “He could be a pretty successful prime minister,” Afzal added.

In a nation obsessed with cricket, the 65-year-old former all rounder has cleverly engineered his legendary status to transition into a career in politics.

Uncertain future

Almost all analysts agreed an outright win for either party was unlikely, meaning Pakistan will be left with a coalition government, likely the PPP – led by the 29-year-old political scion Bilawal Bhutto Zardari – propping up one of the other parties.

“It’s been quite some time since Pakistan’s political environment has been this fraught and polarized, so I imagine that any coalition will be fractious and divided,” said Kugelman.

“Given the pressing policy challenges that Pakistan faces now, a weak coalition would be bad news and quite dangerous as well. Pakistan is confronting a growing economic crisis rooted in falling reserves and balance of payment problems.”

No elected prime minister has ever served a full five-year tenure, even when they appeared to have the full backing of the military establishment.

“When one of these puppets has subsequently sought to cut their strings after coming into power, they have been overthrown by another, invariably in partnership with the military and judiciary,” said Tom Hussain, a political commentator and journalist.

Sharif experienced this, and analysts predicted the same fate could await Khan should he succeed in becoming Pakistan’s leader.

“Certain traits of his – his lack of desire to conduct politics as usual, his stubbornness – will mean that should his relationship with the military sour or cool off, he might falter more quickly than politicians in the past, and more badly,” said Afzal. “But once in power, he could also adapt.”

CNN’s Euan McKirdy contributed reporting.