By John Chalmers
ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - When Imran Khan tumbled spectacularly off a mechanical lift at an election rally this week, a frenzy of media coverage erupted, the last thing Pakistan's mainstream parties needed as they fend off a spoiler threatening to up-end the political order.
Khan has predicted a "tsunami" of support for his party in Saturday's general election as voters, particularly urban youth, turn against the traditional grandees of Pakistani politics after years of misrule and corruption.
It could end up holding the balance of power if there is no clear-cut winner among the two main parties, as seems likely.
"Until recently people didn't have a choice, it was a case of choosing the best worst option," said Shafqat Mahmood, who is hoping to win a parliamentary seat for Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (Pakistan's Movement for Justice) party in the city of Lahore.
"Now people have another choice, someone who is...a national hero in more ways than one."
Pakistan's most famous cricketer and perhaps its best-known playboy, Oxford graduate Khan captained his country to its only cricket World Cup victory in 1992. As a philanthropist, he built a cancer hospital and aided victims of a flood disaster in 2010.
Charismatic and - despite his 60 years - still athletic and craggily handsome, a jump in popularity has now brought Khan the political break he craved for so long.
Opinion polls have shown Khan's PTI trailing Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) in Punjab province, which - with 183 of the national assembly's 342 seats - is the key to power.
The PTI may also struggle to beat the Pakistan People's Party (PPP), which presided for the past five years over a near-failed economy and was widely castigated for allowing the country's Taliban insurgency to spiral out of control.
However, the media's sympathetic coverage of Khan's election-rally accident - including a TV interview from his hospital bed that was set to stirring music - could sway voters seduced by the prospect of a third force in a political landscape so long dominated by the PML-N and PPP.
Khan cracked a rib in the accident and his doctor said he would not be out of hospital on time to vote on Saturday.
A SAFETY VALVE FOR POPULAR ANGER
Junaid Ahmad, a law and policy academic at Lahore University of Management Sciences, said that for democracy to be sustained a "dramatic reconfiguration of mainstream politics" is needed, and the rise of Khan's party is a step in that direction.
"Otherwise, the mainstream political parties' corruption and absence of any vision for independence and self-respect for the country, and economic development, will provide a very easy opportunity for the military to come back to power - and ordinary people will be fairly indifferent," he said.
Pakistan has been ruled by the military for more than half of its 66-year history, through coups or from behind the scenes.
The likely outcome of the election is a hung parliament, where no one party commands a majority, which means there will have to be a coalition government.
Mahmood said the PTI could win enough seats to be kingmaker. But he said it would not join hands with either of the main parties to form a government, and would be content to sit in opposition.
A weak coalition government, with Khan's party - which remains untested and has only briefly held one seat in parliament, his own - as a forceful opposition could suit the military, still the real center of power in the country.
A senior diplomat said the military sees Khan, who has vowed to wipe out corruption, as a useful safety valve for popular anger over the graft and incompetence of the political class.
A survey by the Pew Research Center released this week found an "exceedingly grim" public mood in Pakistan, with roughly 90 percent saying their country is on the wrong track.
Six in 10 people surveyed by Pew said they had a positive view of Khan, who says he is one of the very few political leaders to declare his income and assets to the tax authorities.
In power, however, Khan could be a thorn in the side of the army, which is frustrated by the lack of support from politicians for its battle against Taliban insurgents in tribal areas that has killed and maimed thousands of soldiers.
Khan has vowed that, if he comes to power, he would end Pakistan's cooperation with Washington in the war on Islamist militancy, stop the American drone strikes targeting militants and refuse further U.S. aid. He also wants to stop the fight against the Taliban and seek a negotiated settlement.
He has sometimes been ridiculed as "Taliban Khan" for his views on the insurgency and ties with the United States. Indeed, his party - unlike three others - has not been targeted by militant bomb attacks in the northwestern borderlands.
"With his immature statements on drones and 'Americans must go', an Imran in power would be a big problem for the military," said a senior lawyer in Islamabad.
(Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)