DAVOS, Switzerland (AP) — Cricket legend-turned-politician Imran Khan said he is more confident than ever that his party will sweep upcoming national elections and that he will become Pakistan's next leader.
The reason is very simple, Khan said Thursday on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum: "People want a change."
The elections later this year would mark the first time a civilian government has completed a full five-year term and transferred power through the ballot box in Pakistan. Past governments have been toppled in military coups or dismissed by presidents allied with top generals.
Although few expect a coup this time, there is widespread unhappiness with the ruling Pakistan People's Party's performance at a time when the country is plagued by high unemployment, rampant energy shortages and frequent attacks by Islamist militants.
Khan said the party he founded 15 years ago after retiring from professional cricket — Tehreek-e-Insaf or the Movement for Justice — now has 10 million members, most of them young people and women.
He estimated that 40 million young Pakistanis will be voting for the first time in the upcoming elections, out of a registered electorate of 90 million, and said they are "the engine for change."
But he predicted an "epic battle" by the "political class" and parties that have a vested interest in preserving the current "crumbling system" and status quo to stop change.
He said he doesn't think the country's powerful army will be part of this campaign, which would be a first. Khan has in the past denied allegations that his movement is backed by Pakistan's powerful military.
The former cricketer — who few analysts expect to outright win the polls — accused the entrenched Pakistani political parties of closing ranks and giving huge amounts of money to the media to criticize his party.
He said his party is currently holding internal elections — a rarity in Pakistan.
The audience burst into laughter when he referred to the People's Party, which is led by the husband and son of slain ex-Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, and the opposition Pakistan Muslim League-N, whose leader, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, has relatives waiting in the wings to succeed him, as "family limited companies."
"I often ask, at least hold elections within the family," Khan said. "That would make them more democratic."
Khan led a convoy of thousands that was blocked from entering a lawless tribal region along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border in October to protest American drone strikes, but he denied being pro-Taliban.
Khan alleged there is "a state propaganda campaign ... done deliberately by parties that want to tell the U.S. that they are moderate and they are pro-U.S. voices against extremism and this man is pro-Taliban."
Khan was asked whether after painting such a bleak picture, he was confident of surviving in a country with a history of political assassinations.
"No one knows how long they're going to live," he said. "But I believe that in Pakistan the movement for change is so powerful now that anyone who's going to try and stop it — even by trying to go for someone like me — I do not think that they will be able to cope with the repercussions."
With his party able to reach millions of followers in minutes with text messages, Khan claimed, "we have the sort of street power that no one has ever had in Pakistan."